Immigration, Labor, Opinion/Editorial/Commentary

Asparagus Left in the Field Shines Light on Immigration

From Tri-CityHerald.com, Tri-City Herald Editorial Staff, 6 May 2012.

When a recent story ran about Mid-Columbia farmers who abandoned their asparagus fields because they couldn’t find enough workers to harvest the crop, several thoughts came to mind.

It’s sad for the farmer who worked to bring the crop to fruition. It’s sad for the asparagus lovers among us. But mostly, the farmer’s decision and the subsequent article shine a light on the immigration debate.

Most skilled farm laborers — especially those who harvest asparagus and other labor intensive crops grown here — are Hispanic. That is a fact. But that does not mean they’re all illegal aliens.

Many farm workers are U.S. citizens. Many were born in the United States, and others have the paperwork required to be here and working.

Still, farmers estimate that about 80 percent of farm workers are here illegally, although they typically have official-looking documentation that says otherwise.

Asparagus is a crop that waits for no man. Or woman. It needs to be cut when it’s ready. Let it go a day too long and it’s worthless and unmarketable. So, a shortage of workers has a devastating effect on the delicate fields dotting our landscape.

Gary Larsen, the Pasco farmer who gave up on 100 acres of asparagus last month, said it’s the first time he’s faced a labor shortage since he started growing the crop back in 1984. Some other farmers faced similar circumstances, choosing to curtail harvest on poorer-producing fields and focus on the best ones with the limited workers they had on hand.

Larsen said he was willing to take just about any worker to help fill the gap. But asparagus picking is a tedious and back-breaking business. His workers were working 10-12 hour days to keep up with the crop.

It’s just a guess, but we’re thinking his phone wasn’t ringing off the hook with unemployed Tri-City residents looking for the $9.04 an hour minimum wage that an inexperienced asparagus cutter would likely earn.

A lot of folks whose citizenship is not up for debate simply don’t have the work ethic or the stamina to put in long days in the field to draw an honest wage. A couch is way too comfortable for some to consider leaving for manual labor.

Several of the workers interviewed for the Herald article were from other areas, moving with the crops as they ripen from region to region. That kind of migrant work force is not nearly as common as it used to be. Not long ago, Mid-Columbia school enrollments swelled after spring break, when laborers for asparagus harvest began to arrive.

A decrease in the number of Mexican immigrants nationwide could be partly to blame for this year’s labor shortage. So could increased attention from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Or all the anti-immigrant rhetoric people are so quick to spout these days.

Whatever the reason for the shortage of workers this spring, it’s not the first Washington growers have faced in recent times. Last fall, apple harvest stretched later into the year than usual, and as much as 5 percent of the crop wasn’t picked because of a labor shortage. Our governor allowed some prison inmates to be relocated to the orchards to help with the harvest.

Asparagus is not a crop that can be successfully picked by machine. A skilled, determined and available labor force is needed to get the job done. And the window for a successful harvest is fleeting.

Leaving fruit to rot and crops to be plowed under is not what a farmer wants to have happen. It hurts the farm’s bottom line and the public’s access to the product. But without the necessary workers, what can they do?

We know it’s foolish to hope the nation’s broken immigration system ever will be fixed. There is no political will to take on the thorny issue.

But we could take one step toward a sane policy by creating a guest worker program that’s fair to workers and meets agriculture’s needs.

It would be a start.

Source: Tri-CityHerald.com, “Asparagus left in the field shines light on immigration” by Tri-City Herald Editorial Staff, 6 May 2012.

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