U.S. Farmers Facing Labor Shortages

By MARK JOHNSON
The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 17, 2007; 4:21 AM

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Farmer Jim Bittner wanted to add thousands of peach trees to his 500-acre fruit farm last year, but canceled his order, concerned about whether he'll have enough hands to harvest the crop.

A grower of apples, peaches and cherries northeast of Buffalo, Bittner said he needs to see what type of immigration package comes out of Washington this year _ and how it will affect farm laborers _ before making any major changes.

"Peaches have to be hand-pruned and hand-harvested," he said. "This past harvest time I didn't stop worrying that I wouldn't have help every morning. We're just holding tight to see what happens."

Although labor shortages have had the widest impact in places nearer to the U.S.-Mexican border, like California and Texas, Northeastern farmers have also been forced to adjust. Growers went to Washington last week to campaign for a new Senate bill that would create a guest worker program to grant as many as 1.5 million farm laborers legal status to keep working in the United States.

A similar proposal was defeated last year after legislators stonewalled immigration reform. But farm lobbyists are betting the stand-alone bill _ co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho _ will find new supporters in the Democrat-controlled 110th Congress.

"We're cautiously optimistic," said Austin Perez, an immigration specialist with the American Farm Bureau. He noted however, that neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have made immigration reform a top priority.

New York Farm Bureau President John Lincoln, who runs a 160-head dairy farm in Bloomfield, south of Rochester, said many farmers face trouble with bank financing because the once steady supply of workers is no longer guaranteed.

"That's the thing our farmers are most nervous about," he said. "If they do not have a secure and adequate labor force, it could jeopardize getting loans."

Lack of workers in California left fruit to rot on the vine late last year. That's led some growers to reconsider how they do business, said Jack King, manager of the national affairs office for the California Farm Bureau.

"There's no question that decisions are being made with future labor supplies in mind," King said. "We've seen crop shifts. There is more of a preference for crops that lend themselves to machine harvesting."

Peach farmers in California have started replacing that crop with almonds because production and labor costs are much less, King said.

King and others say efforts to replace foreign-born workers have come up empty, with most Americans simply unwilling to do the hard manual labor.

"When farmers say they have a difficult time getting local workers to do the job, that is true to a great extent," said Thomas Maloney, a senior extension associate in applied economics and management at Cornell University. "Some of these jobs are difficult, labor intensive jobs. With Hispanic immigrant workers, farmers have found a work force that works at the moment."

The American Farm Bureau Federation has warned labor shortages could cause $5 billion in losses to the agriculture industry. The Farm Credit Associations of New York, in a statement supporting immigration reform, said New York could lose more than 900 farms over the next two years because of the labor shortages.

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On the Net:

Singer Farms: http://www.singerfarms.com

New York Farm Bureau: http://www.nyfb.org


© 2007 The Associated Press