From HighlandsToday.com, George Duncan, 16 Nov 2011.
Florida — The two major problems facing the Highlands County agricultural community are labor and workforce concerns, and water quality issues, both of which are crucial to the continued success of agriculture, according to Scott Kirouac, incoming president of the Highlands Farm Bureau.
The labor issue is entwined with the legal and illegal immigration controversy. Kirouac said the industry must maintain a steady labor force but also explain to the public the difficult workforce issues.”I think we in the industry agree that the public does not quite understand that the agricultural community has been unable to find a domestic workforce to do these types of jobs,” he said. “I think we all agree we need immigration reform, but we also need a viable workforce.”
Translated into consumer terms, without that viable workforce harvesting crops, tomatoes could sell for $9 each and the price of all fruits and vegetables would skyrocket in stores.
Kirouac noted that when Georgia adopted an e-verification program this year, there was a mass exodus of the state’s agricultural workers. The consequences were “a loss of millions of dollars when crops in the field were not harvested.”
A local example is the case of Atlantic Blue, which had 320 acres of blueberries in Highlands County. The company put in its own e-verification system, not because it was legally mandated but because company officials wanted to ensure there was no violation of federal law.
“They had to leave 160 acres of blueberries on the vine. Half their production was lost due to not being able to find labor to harvest the crop,” Kirouac said.
If that had occurred all over the South, obviously the price of blueberries would have increased greatly.
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There is truth to the statement that many American growers cannot find Americans, even in difficult economic times, to fill jobs. Employers do check paperwork of all their workers, he said. They do not look the other way but do everything required of them by state and federal law.
“The reason immigrants are employed is because they are dependable, are hard workers and are family-oriented,” Kirouac said.
Kirouac is with the Hillary Peat Co. and has been selling peat for a number of years. His job puts him in close contact with nurseries all over the state.
“Many nurseries pay well, but they can’t get people to take the jobs. Not white Americans,” he said.
Although some will apply for such jobs and even show up for a few days, they soon quit.
Kirouac noted that unemployed workers can get up to 99 weeks of unemployment.
“Would you rather work hard or have the government send you a check?” he asked.
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The incoming Farm Bureau president also thinks most of the public is under a fiscal misconception about migrant workers.
“I think most people believe those workers are taking away from our system and utilizing benefits,” he said. “But every migrant worker who gets a paycheck pays into the system by Social Security. Everybody who gets a check gets Social Security.
“They are paying into the system. Many do have dependants so they pay little or nothing in federal income tax.”
But they are also keeping fruit and vegetable prices low and are preserving a national food system that is safe.
“We have the safest food source system on the planet, and we want to keep it that way,” he said.
America does not want to depend on other nations for food the way it depends on other countries for oil, Kirouac noted, saying that could happen if farmers and growers cannot find a steady workforce.
“You do not want more and more food brought in from outside our borders. It’s both a safety and a national security issue,” he said.
This nation needs fair and reasonable immigration reform, but, Kirouac said, he doesn’t think the general public understands current policies and difficulties in the system.
The second major issue that concerns the Farm Bureau is water, specifically the EPA-proposed numeric nutrient mandates. They are scheduled to go into effect next year but are the subject of lawsuits and heated discussions between the EPA and state and agricultural officials.
“If that is approved it will be devastating to Florida agriculture,” Kirouac said. “The proposal is not based on good science. Even rainwater wouldn’t pass their test.
“We do have challenges, but we’re optimistic. Agriculture contributes to the economy of the state and of Highlands County.
“Agriculture is the No. 2 industry in the state, behind tourism. It’s the No. 1industry in Highlands County. Obviously it’s a very, very large industry,” he said.