From BuffaloNews.com, Maryellen Tighe, News Business Reporter, 5 Sept 2011.
The coming of fall means apple-picking time at Lakeview Orchards.
It also means about 70 Jamaican workers will relocate to the hamlet of Burt to help bring in the harvest.
They are filling a critical labor void that has become so severe that some farms are actually cutting back on planting so they have less produce to harvest when autumn arrives.
“The big problem is the continuous, long-term uncertainty of it all,” said Marc Smith, an extension associate in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. “At any given moment you could lose a large percent or even all of your work force.”
Finding workers has become the number one concern for many local farmers. Tougher immigration laws, local people gravitating to other work, and the lack of an effective guest worker program makes filling the fields with workers more difficult than it was in the past.
Dan Sievert, owner of Lakeview Orchards, used to hire migrant workers to harvest his crops. Now he relies on a guest worker program first outlined more than 50 years ago, when the men who normally did farm work were overseas for World War II.
“It’s like an insurance policy,” Sievert said of the cumbersome H-2A temporary worker visa process he must go through to hire guest workers. “I know that border patrol and immigration officers won’t be coming and taking my workers.”
About 200 H-2A workers have been approved to work in New York in each of the past five years, according to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. The visiting workers do the work that many locals shun.
Western New York’s traditional crops like fruit, peppers and squash require a lot of man-hours to harvest, so if workers are not at the farms on time, farmers can lose thousands of dollars of crops in a matter of days.
“We are extremely labor-intensive and we have extremely limited time frames,” said Mark Henry, president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association. “We cannot wait [for workers to show up]. Our season is not open-ended.”
Farms need skilled people willing to put in the long hours and to stay the whole season, which is difficult to find among an entirely domestic work force.
By hiring workers who have the agricultural H-2A visas, farmers can get a steady workforce and avoid the headache of finding and hiring foreign workers who have the proper documentation.
The H-2A visa has tight restrictions — employees can only stay for a year and must work a specific job. This makes it unworkable for many dairy farmers, who don’t want to have to train a new crew each year, as well as for small vegetable farmers, who often need workers to perform more than one specific job.
Brant farmer Marty Rosiek said such restrictions and the required paperwork make the H-2A process too difficult for him to use to staff his small farm. In the past, Rosiek has had up to 12 workers on his 140-acre farm for the harvest. This year there were only five people, prompting him to seek creative solutions.
“We’ve got some Amish friends we want to work with,” said Rosiek, owner of MCR Farms. “I’ll definitely cut back the acreage.”
Next year he only plans to farm about 80 acres. He also is considering changing crops to something that can be harvested mechanically, like corn or soy beans.
Four Puerto Ricans are on the team that works at the W.D. Henry and Sons farm in Eden each season, Henry said. They’ve been coming back for 25 years and unlike some domestic farmhands, they want to work the hours.
“To have U.S. workers … they don’t make the [whole] season because it’s just too hard of work and they decide to go do something else,” Sievert said. Some workers stick out the season, but if they don’t, trying to find another pair of hands mid-harvest can be difficult.
When it comes to foreign workers, employers now must shoulder the burden of proving their employees are legal, and the punishment that follows if they’re not has largely been shifted to employers.
“Documents come under greater scrutiny as we as employers are under more and more pressure to verify that our workers are legal or not,” said Sarah Noble-Moag, an owner of Noblehurst Farms, a Linwood dairy farm. “The paperwork has been a lot harder to keep up with. It’s not business-friendly.”
While foreign workers are more nervous about working because of the potentially harsh consequences, local workers show little interest in working the harvest, even in a down economy during which hundreds of applicants line up for other job openings.
“There’s a shortage of local labor,” Noble-Moag said. “As more and more people get away from the farm for jobs and opportunities, they look elsewhere.”
Dairy farms require year-round and around-the-clock work, said Paul Baker, executive director of Agriculture Affiliates. Many dairy farms have been able to fill day shifts, but are still lacking night-shift workers.
Since cows can be milked three times in a 24-hour period, the farm could lose out on a third of its profits without those night-shift workers. And the H-2A visa does not apply to the year-round needs of a dairy farm.
“Labor is the biggest threat to our business,” Noble-Moag said. “It hinders us in our ability to invest more capital into this business. If we don’t have the labor to support it, we’re not going to make those investments.”
If business goes well and Noblehurst’s owners consider expanding, they will consider parlors with mechanical milkers, she said. It’s a more expensive option, but it removes the need for so much labor.
The increased difficulty of finding workers for any farm job has driven farmers like Noble-Moag to visit Washington, D.C., to host visits by representatives and to worry about legislation.
A bill that recently left the House Judiciary Committee could make E-verify, a system used to ensure all employees are legal U.S. workers, mandatory for all employers. That adds to farmers’ anxiety, Smith said.
“That uncertainty has a price,” Smith said.
The price is filling out paperwork, as Sievert does each year, or going to Washington to lobby, as Noble-Moag’s family has done.
Statistics say that as many as 75 percent of farm workers do not have the documentation to work legally, Smith said. The impact on the farm industry of forcing these workers to leave is immeasurable.
“Especially when you’re dealing with weather and biology and time that’s crucial, you need to have people and skills available at the right time,” Smith said. “These people are decent and honest and hard-working and they show up to work.”