May 4, 2012
Audits, E-Verify cloud labor picture

Will growers find enough workers to harvest their crops in 2012?

It’s tough to predict, but based on information from a smattering of different crops in different regions, it looks like the labor supply should be adequate – probably.

Here’s how things were looking in April:

The apple harvest is still far away, but last year’s labor shortages could be an indicator of what might happen this fall. Shortages weren’t massive then, but growers definitely felt the effects of newly enacted state E-Verify laws, which will still be in place this year, said Diane Kurrle, U.S. Apple Association (USApple) vice president for public affairs.

About a dozen states have passed E-Verify laws in one form or another, and the federal government could implement a version of its own this year. E-Verify, which requires all employers to use a computerized system to confirm their employees’ eligibility to work in the United States, could be devastating for labor-intensive agriculture, since it is estimated that more than 70 percent of its workforce is ineligible, according to USApple.

E-Verify laws enacted in Georgia and Alabama in 2011 might keep workers in Florida again this year, instead of heading north to harvests in other states. Those northern states would be short of workers in that case, Kurrle said.

Growers also are dealing with an increased number of federal I-9 audits. That tightens the labor supply for everyone, she said.

Washington state’s apple harvest was late last year, which led to worker shortages near the end. As for this year, some areas of the state were about a week early (due to a mild winter), while others were on target. Growers were still waiting on factors like crop size and harvest timing to see how things would shape up. More of them are using the federal H-2A guest-worker program to seek a more consistent labor supply, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association.

Southern growers

Just the threat of E-Verify hit Georgia hard last year. According to a University of Georgia survey released last October, after the state passed its E-Verify law (but before it went into effect), nearly 80 percent of the surveyed growers were having labor problems. The most affected crops were blueberries, blackberries, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers and watermelon, with a combined loss of $74 million. Across all crops, the loss was estimated at $140 million, or 24 percent of the farm-gate value.

The survey estimated a labor shortage of 5,200 workers – or 40 percent of what was needed. The total financial impact was put at $181 million; extrapolated to the entire state, the total effect was estimated at $391 million, according to Charles Hall, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

As for 2012, the labor pool was looking pretty good in April – but Georgia’s growers were adopting a wait-and-see attitude, Hall said.

Florida’s fruit and vegetable harvests were already starting to wind down by April. In general, the labor supply was “barely adequate,” said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Labor usually gets tighter for Florida growers by April, as workers start heading north. Most harvests were earlier than normal this year, however, which probably kept more workers around, Carlton said.

The E-Verify laws passed in Alabama and Georgia (and nearly in Florida) last year have affected the flow of workers in and out of the Sunshine State. To alleviate the unpredictability, more growers are hiring laborers through the H-2A program, he said.

Unusual warmth caused Florida’s blueberry harvest to start a little early – about mid-March – and it was expected to end in mid-May. Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, described the labor situation as “very good.”

There are about 5,000 acres of blueberries in Florida, and two or three workers per acre are needed on a daily basis during harvest. As of April, there was enough labor to get the job done, Braswell said.

Initially, Florida’s blueberry growers were “terrified” of a labor shortage, because the strawberry harvest, which finished about a week before blueberries started, was a little short. Once the blueberry harvest began, however, there were plenty of workers available. Braswell wasn’t sure why, but the E-Verify laws in Georgia and Alabama might have discouraged some workers from migrating north, he said.

Northern growers

Michigan’s blueberry growers weren’t expecting a labor shortage, but the timing of harvest could be a complicating factor. Record high temperatures in March had growers anticipating a mid-June start date (harvest usually starts in earnest in early July), but a cold spell in April pushed that expectation to late June, said Lorrie Merker, director of grower and industry relations for MBG Marketing, which represents Michigan blueberry growers.

“Everything is fluid right now because of the weather pattern,” Merker said in April.

What happens in other states is a factor. Whether or not farm workers move north, and how long they stay, will affect the labor pool. Still, contacts had been made with workers, and it sounded like enough would be available, Merker said.

Growers in western and northern New York state were still seeing sporadic enforcement of employment and immigration laws, all the way from federal I-9 audits to stops by the local sheriff, said Julie Suarez, director of public policy for New York Farm Bureau.

The biggest concern for New York’s growers was that the season was so far ahead of normal. Workers would be needed earlier than ever. Still, growers were expecting enough of them to show up, Suarez said.

To reduce uncertainty, more growers are using the H-2A program, which was working “reasonably smoothly” in April, Suarez said. The state’s fruit and vegetable growers need somewhere between 12,000 and 18,000 seasonal workers to harvest their crops; 4,000 to 5,000 of those are supplied through H-2A, Suarez said.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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