The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our fruit is rotting in the trees as laborers are kept out of the country

A French farmer walks in his sugar beet field in Epinoy, France.
A French farmer walks in his sugar beet field in Epinoy, France. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

Bruce Talbott and his family own Talbott’s Mountain Gold in Palisade, Colo.

For the past few months, our farm’s 57 field workers have been scrambling to pick 4,000 tons of peaches before they’re too ripe to ship across the Midwest. They’ve routinely put in 12-hour shifts and didn’t get a single day off for seven weeks straight.

It’s harvest season, when peaches must be picked in a short window of time. But over the century our farm has been in business, this year has been especially grueling. We’ve been so shorthanded that we lost 40,000 pounds of peaches because we couldn’t pick them fast enough. But we’re fortunate by comparison: Two farmers down the road had to walk away from entire orchards because their peaches had grown too soft to harvest.

There are three reasons why the family farm I run with my three brothers didn’t have enough workers this year. First, the local workforce is aging out of the industry. In the period 1998-2002, 14 percent of foreign-born farmworkers across the nation were over 45, but that percentage nearly doubled between 2008 and 2012, according to research by New American Economy, a nonprofit organization focused on immigration reform (and which provided me with technical assistance in drafting this piece). Every year, more of my best guys retire or find less strenuous work. The number of field and crop workers in Colorado, Nevada and Utah declined by nearly 37 percent between 2002 and 2014.

Second, there’s no fresh supply of new workers to take their place. We used to be able to count on 15 to 20 “walk-ins” – people who would show up to work the season – in addition to my regular full-time crew of 15 people. This year there were none.

Finally, we lack an efficient, farmer-friendly guest-worker program. The current one for temporary H-2A visas was created more than three decades ago; it’s outdated and can’t cope with increasing demand for workers. The labor shortage is so severe that farmers have overwhelmed the system, which had to issue nearly 135,000 visas for seasonal agricultural workers in 2016. That’s nearly double from five years ago.

It’s also expensive. In addition to wages, farmers have to pay, on average, $2,500 per worker every season in visa-processing fees, transportation and housing costs. Yet every year since 2014, there have been delays. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, 72 percent of growers said that workers arrived, on average, 22 days after the “date of need.” When workers arrive late, crops are lost.

In our case, I requested 42 workers this year, but eight were delayed more than five months, and one was denied altogether. We tried bringing in workers from out of state or hiring labor contractors, but neither of those efforts was successful.

The result was that we had to triage the most critical tasks using the help we had. It meant that much of the important blossom-thinning work that produces better fruit quality, size and volume simply didn’t get done this year, and we took a hit in our bottom line.

For all these reasons, I’m urging Congress to protect American farms across the country: Take this chronic labor shortage seriously and pass immigration reform. We desperately need a more functional guest-worker program that makes it easier to get workers when we need them. The attempt by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), which failed this summer, was a good start. But the Western Growers lobby rightly opposed it, saying it didn’t adequately protect undocumented workers who had been living and working in the United States for decades. Lawmakers must quickly revisit this issue when they return from their August recess.

Congress’s inability to act on this issue has cost farmers billions of dollars. One New American Economy study estimated that U.S. growers could produce an additional $3.1 billion in fresh produce per year if they had enough workers.

In my home state of Colorado, the agriculture industry contributes $2.4 billion to the state’s economy. Yet farmers are under threat. This year, our neighbor, Sakata Farms in Brighton, announced that after 74 years in business, it would no longer grow its signature crop of sweet corn due to labor shortages. Recent data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the average farm income has dropped 31 percent since 2013.

How can we plan for our business’s future if we can’t depend on a reliable workforce? That uncertainty directly impacts whether growers decide to invest in the future by planting new trees or constructing new packing facilities. It also influences whether our farm plans new housing facilities for our workers. If we build them, we want to know we will have enough people to fill them.

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