Good Fruit Grower

May 1

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 17 of 47

18 MAY 1, 2015 Good Fruit Grower T he supply of seasonal labor to harvest fruit grown by United States growers is dwindling year by year, but there's a plan in place to gradually replace them. No, the plan doesn't rely on Congress passing immigration reform or creating a rational guest worker program. It's not a government plan; it's a private plan designed to make the government's existing guest worker program—H-2A—finally work for growers. "Our goal is to have 50,000 H-2A workers on the West Coast three years from now," Dan Fazio told Michigan apple growers. Fazio was in Michigan to talk about WAFLA—the Washington Farm Labor Association— which was born in Washington State in 2007 and has grown rapidly. It placed 7,500 H-2A workers in Washington last year—and has a goal of placing 10,000 there this year. While WAFLA started as a Washington Farm Bureau program, it is now a stand-alone organization that is expanding to offer services to fruit growers in Oregon and California and has provided a model for a new Michigan organization called the Great Lakes Ag Labor Services LLC (GLALS). The Michigan group has partnered with Fazio's program. Fazio came to Michigan in March to speak at the annual meeting of the Michigan Processing Apple Growers Association. That group is an affiliate of Michigan Farm Bureau. Two years ago, it asked its par- ent organization to create a study committee, and that committee recommended that Farm Bureau help its specialty crop grower members deal with the growing shortage of farm labor. Last year, Farm Bureau operated what it called "a pilot H-2A program" to see if they could bridge the gap between growers and the frustratingly cumbersome and bureaucratic H-2A program. The result was a decision to create Great Lakes Ag Labor Services, hire Katie Rasch to run it, and extend the reach beyond apples to serve growers of other Michigan crops, especially asparagus and summer vegetables. Now, by working with Fazio's WAFLA, the network has gotten larger. Labor shortage The United States border with Mexico is no longer easy to cross, said Fazio. That is creating a growing shortage of seasonal labor, the kind fruit growers have historically used in large numbers during the harvest season. Last year, that shortage meant growers could only find 85 percent of the workers they needed, he said. Where would-be workers once crossed the bor- der fairly freely, border stiffening after 9/11 has kept Mexicans from moving north, and it has created a trap for those already in the United States illegally. Since they can't move freely back and forth, they have to choose which side to stay on. Those who stay in the U.S. face a conundrum: They can't make a living doing seasonal work. It was that ability to move back and forth across a porous border that made the life of a Mexican migrant farm worker possible, Fazio said. They were able to turn seasonal income at American wages into year-round liv- ing in Mexico for themselves and their families because of the lower cost of living in Mexico and the value of the American dollar there. "Five months' income doing farm work in the United States is five years of income working in Mexico," Fazio said. But, trapped in the United States, seasonal work at farm wages cannot support them for the year. "They can't live a year here off that money," Fazio said. "They had to go back and forth." So they are leaving agriculture and its seasonal work for full-time jobs if they can find them. As the economy continues to improve, fruit growers lose more and more workers. "They're leaving ag," he said. President Barack Obama used executive powers last year to reduce the pressure to deport undocumented workers, but "the President's plan won't help agricul- ture," Fazio said. Those workers may feel less stress, but they are leaving agriculture looking for full-time work. Make H-2A work Fazio's plan: Make H-2A work for growers by helping them deal with the process. Growers will still have to pay the costs—of transportation, housing, and paying higher wages—but WAFLA and GLALS will find the workers in Mexico, arrange to get them visas and transportation to growers' farms and orchards, and advertise aggressively to find domestic workers. That is required of growers who must demonstrate the unavailability of domestic labor before they can hire workers from other countries under the H-2A program. They will help growers meet other provisions of the law—like making sure they provide quality housing and transportation so workers can shop for groceries. Growers who know workers they'd like to hire can put them on a "preferred" list. NEW WAY with H-2A Labor Organizations work out ways to make H-2A labor program more user-friendly. by Richard Lehnert TJ MULLINAX/GOOD FRUIT GROWER "You get better productivity and higher quality fruit because it is picked on time. Workers arrive when you need them, work for you, and want to come back every year." —Dan Fazio

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of Good Fruit Grower - May 1