Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Immigration, Labor, Law Enforcement, Legislation, Undocumented Workers, Visas

Henderson Apple Harvest Hampered by Shortage of Workers

From Citizen-Times.com, John Boyle, jboyle@citizen-times.com, 2 Sept 2011.

HENDERSONVILLE NC — Henderson County’s apple growers are dealing with a double whammy this year.

First, early frost and hail and then excessive heat curtailed the crop. And now they’re dealing with a severe shortage of farm workers to pick what apples are on the trees.

“Several growers can’t find help at all,” said Anthony Owens, a grower and president of the Blue Ridge Apple Growers Association. “In some instances, it’s hard to find enough people to help harvest what you’ve got.”

Owens said Henderson County’s position as a “287(g)” county, meaning it serves as a federal holding and transportation hub for undocumented workers arrested in the mountains, has scared workers away.

Since the Sheriff’s Department started the program in October 2008, Henderson County has arrested 13,726 people and submitted their fingerprints to the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement agency, including 222 the agency ultimately deported.

All mountain counties participate in the federal “Secure Communities” program, which allows ICE to check fingerprints of anyone arrested for potential immigration status problems.

As a result, some workers are just afraid to come here, Owens said.

Also, with the overall economy down, fewer workers have come from Mexico or other countries to pick apples in Henderson, which has a harvest season that generally lasts through mid-October.

Owens estimates the county needs 500-1,000 workers to bring in the crop. At his farm and most others, harvesters are paid based on how many bins they fill, roughly $15 a bin.

A fast worker can make $15-$20 an hour, Owens said.

He and other growers stress that they check documentation as far as the law allows, and they pay Social Security and other taxes on the wages.

Often, they find out later that workers were not legal immigrants.

Sheriff responds

Henderson County Sheriff Rick Davis says he has personally met with farmers to discuss the issue and the labor shortage, which growers say has worsened significantly over the past two years. Davis said he sympathizes with the growers’ plight, but he has to enforce the law.

“We’re in the business of law enforcement,” Davis said. “We’re here to enforce the laws that are set by the state of North Carolina and the federal government,” Davis said. “We can’t summarily dismiss or overlook laws and say, ‘We’re only going to enforce this segment of law and this segment.”

Davis also notes that it’s rare for his department to pick someone up on a traffic offense or minor crime that ultimately becomes the reason leading to deportation proceedings. More than 90 percent of the undocumented immigrants who are arrested have multiple charges, usually involving more serious offenses.

If these people happen to be farm workers, that makes no difference.

“We have to treat everyone the same,” Davis said.

Owens and another grower, Marvin Lively, said the larger federal immigration issue is more to blame. For decades, the country has not allowed in enough immigrant workers or made legal worker programs such as H2A overly onerous for farmers to comply with, they say.

“I’m having trouble to get workers in here,” Lively said. “The American people ain’t got enough sense to know that if the government is sending Mexicans back to Mexico, there’s no one to pick the food they eat.”

Because of hail storms, frost and heat, Lively said his 60 acres will only yield about a third of their potential this year — if he can get them harvested.

Owens said he tried hiring local, non-immigrant workers last year to pick apples, but the men quit after just three hours.

“One guy said he’d rather work at McDonald’s than have to do this kind of labor,” Owens said. “It’s sad to say our economy has become like that, but it has. It’s pitiful. They’d rather sit at home and draw unemployment.”

Weather hurts, too

The heat and hailstorms also took a toll on Owens’ 160 acres of apples, leaving him with about half of a full crop this year.

Henderson is the state’s largest apple-producing county, with 150 growers and about 5,000 acres in orchards. Annual apple revenues come in between $20 million-$25-million in an average year.

Marvin Owings, an apple specialist and director of the Henderson County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, said spotty hailstorms and frost, coupled with searing heat in July, took a toll this year. He emphasized that even with a short crop, apples abound for the ongoing Apple Festival, and direct marketers who sell to the public have plenty of fruit this year.

“A number of varieties have been affected by the heat this year, and there’s been some burning,” Owings said, explaining that sunburned fruit is more susceptible to insect and bird damage. “And we’ve had numerous hail storms. Back in June, there were random, spotty storms across the county.”

Still, some growers who got lucky and missed the hail and frost have close to a full crop.

Weather always bedevils farmers, and there’s little they can do about that.

Owens said that’s not the case with immigration and worker issues, and he hopes the country seriously addresses the issue.

“If I had to say what the biggest issue is within the county, it’s the labor shortage,” Owens said. “It’s gotten progressively worse, and I think over the last two years it’s really come to a head. The Democrats and the Republicans cannot come to any kind of agreement on worker visa programs.”

Source: Citizen-Times.com, “Henderson apple harvest hampered by shortage of workers” by John Boyle, jboyle@citizen-times.com, 2 Sept 2011.

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