From TheLedger.com, Kevin Bouffard, 26 Nov 2011.
HAINES CITY | The Mexican community in Polk County and Florida makes no greater contribution than putting affordable food on our tables.
How long they do so will become one of the big issues in the 2012 Legislature, where tea party and other Republicans without strong ties to the agriculture community, including Gov. Rick Scott, plan to introduce strict measures against illegal immigrants — measures already adopted in Alabama, Arizona and Georgia.
“It’s a major concern of anybody in the state that uses (immigrant) labor,” said Marty McKenna, a Lake Wales-based grower and chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission in Bartow.
Once reluctant to discuss illegal workers in Florida agriculture, the state’s fruit and vegetable, growers now openly acknowledge illegal immigrants harvest most crops now that a conservative backlash threatens that workforce. Nearly all are Hispanic men; most come from neighboring Mexico.
At the Florida Citrus Expo in Fort Myers last August, Mike Carlton of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Growers in Maitland acknowledged about 80 percent of U.S. harvest workers are illegal residents.
Also at the Expo, citrus leaders celebrated the defeat of an immigration bill in this year’s Legislature that would have required use of an Internet-based “e-Verify” system, a federal database, to confirm Social Security numbers for job applicants.
State Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, earned kudos for his key role in defeating the bill against Scott and other GOP supporters. Alexander is CEO of Alico Inc., one of the state’s largest citrus growers with more than 10,000 grove acres.
Florida agriculture won a temporary victory at best, said Mike Sparks, chief executive at Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest growers’ organization, because Scott and supporters have promised to try again in January, when the new Legislature convenes.
Agriculture interests still expect that fight, McKenna said, but the impact of tough immigration laws in Alabama and Georgia on their agriculture sectors has tempered enthusiasm in the Legislature for similar laws in Florida.
Farmers in both states have reported a mass exit of their Hispanic workers, who fear being harassed, detained and deported under the new laws, which give police and other government authorities more power to check for immigration status.
A key issue in the debate is whether native-born U.S. citizens without jobs will step in to harvest crops.
Farmers in Alabama and Georgia have reported unemployed citizens have not applied for the jobs in numbers even close to those needed. The laws’ supporters counter it’s too soon to say unemployed U.S. workers won’t take those jobs, particularly if harvest companies offer better wages.
But Florida growers agreed with their Alabama and Georgia counterparts that U.S. workers won’t take the jobs because the work is too physically demanding. The few who try it find that out and don’t last for more than a few days, several Florida growers say, based on experience.
One myth about harvesting just about any crop is that it is “unskilled labor,” said Les Dunson III, owner of a Winter Haven harvesting company that services 5,000 acres of citrus groves each season.
Harvesting citrus, for one, requires speed and dexterity that only experienced pickers have, he said. The work requires climbing ladders with a shoulder bag capable of holding 90 pounds of oranges, a standard field box. Once the bag is full, it must be carried to and dumped into a standard 10-box bin for loading onto a roadside truck.
An experienced picker can fill eight to 10 bins a day, Dunson and other citrus growers reported, and the best can add a couple more. But an inexperienced picker would struggle to fill four or five a day.
That leads to another common misperception that harvesting work, if you can tolerate the working conditions, pays low wages.
An orange picker earns 95 cents per box, or $9.50 per bin, Dunson said. That means even an average experienced picker can earn $76 (eight bins) to $95 (10 bins) per day, which is usually longer than eight hours.
Compare that to $61.36 for an eight-hour day under Florida’s $7.67-an-hour minimum wage scheduled to go into effect in January. That’s equivalent to picking about 6.5 bins of oranges per day.
Most minimum-wage jobs, however, don’t take nearly the physical toll as harvesting citrus.
“Most of the Anglos are beginning to understand — not only understand but appreciate the work they are doing,” said Robert Cubero, owner of WIPC 1280 AM (Super W) in Lake Wales, the local Spanish radio station. “If you see that, the perceptions of Mexicans are going to change, and I think they are changing.”