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Labor issue hangs over fruit, vegetable industry

The fruit and vegetable industry, for the most part, had little quarrel with President Bush’s farm bill proposal released earlier this year.

Most groups supporting the industry were generally pleased with the plan, which targets nearly $5 billion to support specialty crop producers by increasing nutrition in food assistance programs — including school meals — through the purchase of fruits and vegetables, funding specialty crop research, fighting trade barriers, and expanding export markets.

By commodity crop standards, that’s small potatoes (no pun intended). But there are many in the fruit and vegetable trade who are focusing on an issue that’s much larger for them. It’s their belief that the farm bill — whatever its final form — won’t make much difference if immigration and labor issues aren’t addressed.

One Alabama farmer said just that when asked — at a regional peanut meeting — his thoughts about a new farm bill. In addition to peanuts, this farmer also grows vegetables, and he recalled being forced to watch produce rot on the ground this past year because there wasn’t any available labor to pick it.

His sentiments are shared by many in the Southeast who, after being preached to repeatedly about diversifying their crop mix, turned to vegetable production only now to find themselves in an untenable situation as far as labor is concerned.

To date, the only agreement Congress and the President have reached on immigration reform is a bill authorizing the construction of 700 miles of new fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to curb the influx of illegal immigrants — a stopgap measure, at best.

Whatever occurs in the future, the conditions in the immigrant labor market are expected to change radically, says Cesar Escalante, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. Any version of an immigration bill will affect an estimated 12 million unauthorized immigrants, 40 percent of whom are hired as farm workers, he says.

An economist from the American Farm Bureau Federation estimated that the immigration reform proposed by Congress last year would have pushed farm wages from the current average of $9.50 per hour to about $14.50 per hour as farms are constrained to offer higher wage rates if only to attract the reluctant potential farm workers for hire. He foresees the ultimate effect of immigration reform could be an increase in commodity prices of from 5 percent to 10 percent, as farm businesses pass on the burden of higher labor costs to consumers.

The bottom line is that U.S. agriculture has become dependent on migrant labor, and any future legislation that restricts the hiring of such workers could indeed have a larger impact on farming — especially fruits and vegetables — than the new farm bill. The numbers bear this out.

Forecasts from the American Farm Bureau Federation indicate that up to $5 to $9 billion in annual production of primarily import-sensitive commodities most dependent on migrant labor could be lost in the short-term and $6.5 to $12 billion could be lost in the longer-term if foreign labor is restricted.

The fruit, vegetable and nursery industries would be affected the most with an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its output shifting to other countries. This, in turn, would increase the U.S. trade deficit on virtually a “dollar-for-dollar” basis. Furthermore, it’s predicted that 20 to 33 percent of this labor-intensive fresh fruit and vegetable industry’s production would literally disappear. The spillover effect from the fruit and vegetable industry — ranging from increased costs of production to decreased supplies — eventually would be felt in the traditional row-crop and livestock sectors that do not rely heavily on migrant labor.

Nationally, estimates indicate the U.S. farm sector might sustain losses of $1.5 to $5 billion in the short-run and $2.5 to $8 billion in the long-run due to reduced production and increased costs arising from the elimination of foreign or migrant labor.

On a more local level, it’s estimated that Georgia alone could lose $100 million to $180 million in terms of reduced production in the short-term and $30 million to $100 million in terms of lost income. In the longer-run, Georgia could lose from $131 million to $241 million in production and from $50 million to $161 million in income.

Polls show that most Americans’ opinions on immigration reform have evolved in recent months from a “send ‘em back” mentality to a desire to find more reasonable solutions to the problem, solutions that would not unfairly penalize migrant-dependent industries such as fruit and vegetable production. Let’s hope the politicians are listening.


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