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August 19 , 2007
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Democrat & Chronicle ~ Feature Article
August 19 , 2007
Immigration rules hit farmers hard
Congress' delays on reform could hurt harvests
Diana Louise Carter
To learn more
About Angelo Mancuso's documentary, American Harvest, or about local screenings, go to www.americanharvestmovie.com.
(August 19, 2007) — If this year is like others, the sounds of droning cicadas and buzzing bees in local apple orchards will soon be supplanted by the cadence of Spanish speech and Jamaican accents as migrant workers arrive to pick the upstate New York apple crop.
The harvest requires about 8,000 temporary workers each year, according to James Allen, president of the New York Apple Association. And those workers typically come from south of the U.S. border.
But apple farmers are worrying that the only sound they'll hear in their orchards this fall will be the "thunk" of overripe apples dropping to the ground.
Many farmers blame a growing farm labor shortage on a dramatic increase in immigration enforcement actions at the same time that tougher national security measures have slowed to a crawl foreign workers' attempts to gain legal employment.
As a result, the foreign workers who weed our vegetables, tend our grapevines and apple trees, harvest our produce and milk our cows are increasingly being deported or scared away by immigration agents.
"There's an acute crisis going on with labor," said Bob King, director of the Agriculture and Life Sciences Institute at Monroe Community College.
Farmers and agencies that represent farming interests are making dire predictions about the consequences of failing to reform immigration policies. A national immigration reform bill failed to gain support in Congress this summer, perhaps prolonging the problem.
"Without a work force here to harvest the fruits and vegetables, western New York will be a disaster area," said Cliff Demay, a farm labor broker in Williamson, Wayne County.
Farm Credit Associations of New York, an organization of agricultural lenders, predicted that 900 New York farmers will go out of business in the next two years, representing a $195 million loss in production if the federal government doesn't find a way to allow foreign farmworkers to cross into the United States legally and work without fear of deportation.
Many of the estimated 1.5 million undocumented farmworkers nationwide have sought citizenship or legal alien worker status, but the federal government can take years to process their requests or grant extensions to legal permits.
Filimon Ramirez, a year-round worker at Teeple Farms in Huron, Wayne County, said it took him four or five years and about $5,000 to obtain legal working status from the federal government.
"I really worked very hard," Ramirez said, adding that he was lucky not to be arrested or deported before he earned his legal papers. Most foreign farmworkers are taking similar risks.
"Eighty percent of our food source is picked by someone with a questionable document," said Rochester filmmaker Angelo Mancuso, who has made a documentary on migrant workers in America. Despite pay of $8.50 to $20 an hour, local residents aren't stepping forward to take these farm jobs. Farmers report no reaction to ads they take out in local shopping news weeklies or other publications.
Agriculture "is the basis of our upstate and overall state economy," Allen said. "If agriculture in New York fails, it will bring down the whole economy of New York."
Farming is the No. 1 land-based industry in the state, Allen said. The apple industry alone represents just less than $300 million annually and each of those dollars has been shown to turn over five times in the local economy.
Farmers are feeling the effects already, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement stepped up enforcement in 2006.
"Last year we left crops in the field because we didn't have enough labor," said Doug Mason of Mason Farms in Williamson. Farm lending experts estimate the statewide losses experienced already in New York to be in the millions of dollars.
Dairy farmers told immigration officials at a meeting last month in York, Livingston County, that they feared for the dairy cattle's health should an immigration raid sweep up their foreign-born workers who perform the twice-daily milkings year-round. Although immigration officials said there have been few recent enforcement actions in Livingston County, farmers are spooked by the news reports of an Oswego County onion farm that lost all of its migrant workers in late May when ICE officers were looking for an illegal immigrant who didn't even work on that farm.
Mason said this year, after wasting some of his vegetable crops last season, he planted fewer tomatoes, peppers and eggplants because the vegetables require repeated pickings, therefore requiring more labor. He planted instead more potatoes, because they can be harvested all at once.
John Martini of Anthony Road Wine Co. near Penn Yan, Yates County, has been looking into ways to manipulate the acres of grapes he grows so they can be harvested by machine.
A story is circulating in the Finger Lakes grape industry that one farmer was so desperate for laborers that he made a donation to the athletic department of Wells College in exchange for help from the swim team.
Like many farmers who were approached for this story, the farmer that others identified in this anecdote declined to be interviewed. Many have said they fear being interviewed would cause their farms to be raided.
"We strongly suspect that putting a farmer's name in the newspaper has a direct correlation with whether they receive an enforcement action," said Mark James, executive director of the New York State Farm Bureau's Finger Lakes office.
A few farmers, though, have been willing to talk.
"We're very concerned about the labor this fall," said John Teeple, whose Teeple Farms in Huron, Wayne County, includes 325 acres of apples. He has two crews of Mexican and Jamaican workers who pick for him each year and he's been in contact with them as they work their way up the Eastern Seaboard, following the crops.
Teeple said he's sure those crews will arrive as usual, but they account for only half of the migrant force he hires each fall. The other half are migrants who just show up asking for work. Teeple asks for and receives legal-looking documents, but if he scrutinizes papers too much, he could get in trouble.
"Unless it's overtly obvious that the documentation is illegal, then you are under obligation to hire them," said James. "If you chose wrongly and the person is legal, you could set yourself up for a civil rights lawsuit."
When farmers questioned federal law enforcers in York last month about the difficult position this puts them in, they were told to follow the law, but received no promises that being diligent would prevent them from losing their workers in an immigration sweep.
"We need to import this labor to pick crops or we're going to be importing our crops," Teeple said.
Farmworkers, meanwhile, are lying low, not traveling as much from state to state, or even straying from farms where they've found work, advocates said.
"People are afraid to go to work. They're just afraid to move about," said Sister Janet Korn, who works in migrant ministries in Sodus, Wayne County, for Catholic Charities.
Workers fear if they travel between states or even off the farm, they'll be picked up for traffic infractions by local police and then referred to Immigration if they cannot produce a license.
"If they see one of them that looks Mexican, they will stop them," said Ami Kadar, a farmworker advocate in Albion, Orleans County.
James said he witnessed a Border Patrol officer near Gouverneur, St. Lawrence County, double back and stop a man on a bicycle apparently because he appeared to be Hispanic.
Several farmworkers in Orleans County said they rely on someone with papers to drive them around, as those without papers can't get a license.
The atmosphere has trapped some workers in the United States, Martini said. "They want to go home to visit their family. They can't get back in without paying a pile of money or taking a big risk."
Numbers supplied by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement public affairs in Washington show enforcement has sharply increased over the least two years. Arrests for administrative violations — being in the country without the proper documentation — tripled after 2005.
"They're doing their job, and we all realize we need to secure the borders," said Allen. But after seeing the federal lawmakers fail to enact changes the same week they voted themselves a raise, he said with some ire: "The system is broken and it's now quite obvious that the government doesn't want to fix it."
Both apple and grape industries have started lobbying Congress for an agricultural jobs bill in the next Congress, separating out farmwork from other jobs typically held by undocumented workers, such as hotel, restaurant and construction work.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said in a statement that "New York's farmers are in crisis, with their crops in danger of not being fully harvested. I am working to pass an Ag Jobs bill that will enhance border security and ensure that our hard-working farmers have the legal labor they need to get their crops to market."
L.C. Platt, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, Erie County said, "We're trying to determine what the best course of action is," noting the balancing act between border security and farm economy.
Meanwhile, MCC's King said farmers are focusing on what needs to be done to get their crops in now.
Martini described a complex system of pruning grape canes or removing clusters of developing grapes to ensure a crop ripens all at the same time — essential for keeping up quality of the wine when using mechanical grape harvesting equipment.
In other places, farmers are simply expecting to lose money.
"Every load that's going off to market, part of that farmer's equity is going with it because that's the only way they can make up the difference on the labor shortage," King said.
Indeed, Teeple said if he can get workers in time to pick his apples at the appropriate time, he can earn 20 cents a pound for fresh fruit.
"If we wait too long, and they drop on the ground, they're going for juice," which pays 5 cents a pound, Teeple said.
"If you start selling them for juice, you'll be out of business soon."