Labor and Our Fences
For over a decade, the Good Fruit Grower December issue has been dedicated to the recipient of our Good Fruit Grower of the Year award.
This year, however, as part of our magazine redesign, we are moving the Grower of the Year issue to January 1, 2007. We will still present the award at the Washington State Horticultural Association meeting in December, but readers will have to wait a month to read the many reasons why this year’s recipient was chosen to be among the ranks of some pretty impressive growers.
In this December issue, rather than giving you inspirational material about one of your own, our writers are addressing one of the most controversial issues facing our industry and our nation: immigrant labor. It’s long been a concern for fruit growers, who worry about labor shortages, escalating costs, and the disparity between U.S./Canadian labor costs and that of their foreign competitors, but the labor issues that are of concern to growers are being overshadowed by politically charged demands for immigration reform. The public is simply not sympathetic to growers’ needs: many, if not most, see nonresident laborers as criminal trespassers and their employers as enablers of illegal immigration.
Seeing the negative
Where agriculture desperately needs laborers for work that is not yet adaptable to automation and has found a reliable work force with foreign nationals, much of the rest of our citizenry sees only the negative impacts of a great migration of undocumented (aka, illegal) aliens.
As a result, some fall political campaigns have used the fear of en masse immigration as their appeal to voters while other politicians are scurrying about to show that they have some solution. One “solution,” a 700-mile-long fence between Mexico and the United States with a price tag of up to $9 billion (not including maintenance or enforcement), is but one of the more concrete methods of immigration control. Most “solutions” seem to be expensive, and few consider
the needs of agriculture.
If these challenges to nonresident labor don’t register as a threat to agriculture’s future, consider that many agricultural workers already in the United States do not stay in agriculture, but advance to higher paying (and often less strenuous) jobs. If our borders become effectively closed without a greatly streamlined guest-worker program being first put in place, the impact on labor-intensive crops could overshadow every other problem facing growers.
Americans’ anger over the progress of the Iraq war may have been the biggest issue in this recently concluded off-year election, but public demand for immigration reform was not far behind. And while the war will eventually end, pressures from legal and illegal immigration will not.
No one has found an easy answer to agriculture’s labor problems, though efforts are being made to utilize technology and robotics to supplement the need for human effort. In this issue, we report interviews with growers who were willing to share their experiences with the H-2A guest-worker program in the hope that others may benefit from their successes as well as their failures. Using H-2A effectively may help provide some of your labor needs, they suggest, but they also note that the program shouldn’t be counted on without first knowing its risks and hidden expense.
Labor will continue to be a focus in this magazine. In future issues, we will report on horticultural practices that growers are implementing now to help reduce their labor needs and costs. We hope you find the labor information in this and future issues both thought-provoking and beneficial.