A working farm is a living, breathing entity. One that just doesn’t need land to survive but people.
Five years ago Long Island farmers had laborers knocking on their doors looking for work. Today, it’s the farmers that search out workers, sometimes resorting to stopping by train stations to find day laborers. But even when they find laborers they often can’t afford to hire them.
The state minimum wage is $8 an hour, set to rise to $8.75 at the end of the year. Farmers searching for workers, however, often find laborers expecting wages much greater than that.
“Farmers are facing people asking for $12 to $20 per hour,” Long Island Farm Bureau Executive Director Joe Gergela III said.
The average farmer can’t afford to pay those prices. Not without raising the cost of the their food products, often not an option or without taking a loss in the form of profits or crops.
In 2010, US farmers reported more than $320 million in losses due to labor shortages, according to the Wall Street Journal. On Long Island the vast majority of farm crops need hand labor. Wineries need laborers for the tasting rooms and to harvest grapes. Fresh fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, lettuce and broccoli require handpicking. Even crops harvested by machine often need workers to then package it by hand.
For years farmers and their supporters have looked to immigration reform as the solution to the labor shortage problem. Already, the majority of agricultural workers are immigrants. It’s the often-unmentioned part of where food comes from. In 2006, 77 percent of all agricultural workers in the US were foreign-born and half of all foreign farm workers were undocumented immigrants.
“You can’t get domestic workers to work on a farm,” Gergela said. “You send your kids to college want them to do better than you, not work on a farm.”
According to the Long Island Immigration Alliance about 7,000 immigrants work on Long Island farms every season. Proponents of immigration reform for agricultural workers want to revise the legal visa program to attract workers from other countries. The current visa system, H-2A program, allowed farmers to bring in temporary agriculture workers legally. Opponents of the system say the process is expensive, the government is often slow to approve visas and the program requires farmers to pay laborers for a certain amount of work. Some proponents of immigration reform want to do away with the current visa system for a new streamlined one.
According to Gergela, a new visa program would attract workers from rural countries in Central and South America.
But immigration reform remains stalled and even if it restarted not everyone agrees it would make a difference. A recent study done by researchers at UC Davis suggests that the foreign agricultural labor pool is shrinking. According to the study the labor shortage will get worse as foreign economies continue to grow.
“It’s a very complex problem,” Gergela said.
And it’s not going away.
So far farmers haven’t passed on the higher costs to the consumer. The price of fruits and vegetables has stayed fairly stable, but the system is becoming less sustainable.