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Immigration Issues Endangering Agriculture's Future
The Evening Sun
Steve Marroni
March 30, 2008

Kay Hollabaugh's jaw dropped when she learned this week that the state's largest tomato grower would not plant a crop this year because there might be too few workers to harvest it.

It begs the question, she said, if the day will ever come when Adams County's fruit growers face a similar decision.

And while Hollabaugh Bros. Fruit Farm and Market outside of Biglerville has not had to take such a drastic step, Kay Hollabaugh said she's noticed fewer and fewer migrant workers, most of whom are Mexican, coming back to the orchard each year.

"I'm very fearful of what the future holds for us," she said. "Agriculture is a hands-on business, and if we can't get people to do the hands-on labor, we will go out of business."

It's a frightening trend, she said - a trend that could slow production.

But American consumers will still need to eat.

We have no tomatoes

Keith Eckel is a fourth-generation farmer from northeastern Pennsylvania, and the largest tomato farmer in the state. He announced this week he will no longer grow tomatoes because he cannot find enough workers to harvest the fruits from his 2.2 million plants.

He blames Congress' failure at immigration reform, and the climate it has created, which diminished the number of potential workers.

"The system to provide our labor is broken and the emotion surrounding the immigration issue is standing in the way of those in the political arena moving forward to solve it," the Clarks Summit, Pa. farmer said.

Eckel, who came to Gettysburg this week to take part in a panel discussion on migrant workers, said there are not enough local workers willing to do the work done by migrant workers. And, with immigration reform stalled in Congress, and lack of an adequate guest-worker program, he said he is having more and more difficulty finding migrants to do the work, especially at harvest time.

Eckel said he was only able to harvest all of his tomatoes last year because of four weeks of spectacular weather. But now, he said it's too much of a risk to plant his about $1.5 million tomato crop, and possibly not have enough people to harvest it

"The American consumer really needs to wake up to this issue," he said.

The sentiment of a need for reform, and migrant laborers' vital link to agriculture, and thus the nation's food supply, was a common theme through a slate of immigration-related events this week in Gettysburg.

The Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health held a two-day conference at the Gettysburg Hotel. Entitled the 2008 Migrant and Immigrant Health in Rural Pennsylvania Conference, it drew more than 50 farmers, educators, health-care workers and others.

Gettysburg College's Eisenhower Institute and Center for Public Service held a two-day forum on immigration. Wednesday, at the Majestic Theater, Angelo Mancuso's migrant-worker documentary, "American Harvest," was shown to a packed house. A panel discussion, called "Migrant Labor: National Questions, Local Impact," was held Thursday at the Gettysburg Hotel in front of another packed-house audience.

Eckel's decision to stop planting tomatoes, along with ceasing pumpkin planting, and cutting his sweet corn production in half, resonated through it all.

The topic most hoped would be remembered after this week is the vital link between immigration and the nation's food.

Field of dreams

Five migrant workers snipped away with long-handled sheers, pruning down several lines of raspberry bushes at the Hollabaugh farm. In the cool, spring morning, the fog of an early rain lifted, and they cut bare bushes down to the core to prepare for a bountiful year.

Hector Mateos, 18, said he has gained a connection to the land. Seeing trees and bushes crawling out of winter dormancy, he thinks this will be a fruitful year in fruit - weather permitting, of course.

"When you see these trees, you see them when they are young. You grow with them," Mateos said. "We grow together."

He can tell when they're young, and ready to explode with apples and peaches and pears. He can tell when they're dying.

Mateos is a migrant worker . He has been with the Hollabaughs for four years now and is following in his family tradition. He worked part-time in the fruit stand, and full-time during the summers, while he went to Biglerville High School. After graduating last year, he was hired on full-time.

The thing about his job a lot of people might not believe - he loves it.

But, it is hard work, especially during the harvest. He can put in long days, working sometimes from six in the morning until six, or later, in the evening, he said. Picking fruit, moving heavy bushels in the hot sun can take its toll on one's body. It's a job migrants do. It's a job many domestic workers just won't do, which is why farmers say they need migrant workers.

Mateos thinks it deflates the argument when those staunchly against immigration say "they're taking our jobs."

"Those people don't know what we are doing out here," he said. "They think we're coming to take their job. They don't realize the work we have to do."

He wondered if some of those people would come to the fields and work side-by-side with them, and if that might change some perspectives.

Enrique Ruiz Sanchez, the consul of Mexico in Philadelphia, said at the panel discussion Thursday the idea migrants and immigrants are taking American jobs is no more than a myth. He said there is no statistical correlation between immigration and unemployment. In fact, the U.S. is seeing practically record-low unemployment, and record-high immigration, Gettysburg College political-science department chairman Bruce Larson said. Eckel provided proof to many attending the discussion that this labor is needed.

The big issue, affecting those in the fields and those in government office, is a complex one, Jeff Grove of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau told attendees of the migrant health conference Tuesday.

American agriculture needs a stable, legal supply of workers, and it needs to allow farmers to recruit temporary workers, giving some the opportunity to apply for permanent residency.

In the meantime, with a quality verification system not in place, a farm bureau survey showed the declining number of field workers was the top concern of farmers. Sending back all 12 million illegal immigrants, as some demand, is nearly impossible, he said. It's the equivalent of emptying the population of Ohio into 200,000 buses, which would stretch nearly 2,500 miles.

The bureau is calling for reforms to the immigration law that would not diminish the migrant workforce. The big concern, Grove said, comes down to food security.

If more farmers joined Eckel, fewer crops would be produced, which would hike the price of most foods. This, in turn, would increase U.S. dependence on foreign sources of food, which in many cases may not be as scrutinized and regulated as what is produced in the U.S.

Gary Swan of the farm bureau said at Thursday's panel discussion that he is frustrated more elected officials have not taken a leadership role. He said they are frightened by mass e-mails and faxes from a vocal group strictly opposed to immigration. This is a detriment, he said. And a danger.

"They need to enlighten the public on how this issue affects our food supply," Swan told the assembled crowd of about 70. "We believe it's time for a frank and candid talk on these different issues."

What will happen here?

Kay Hollabaugh remembers a time when carloads of migrant workers would roll in, looking for work. Slowly, fewer and fewer showed up. She fears soon there won't be enough to do that work.

What about local workers?

Eckel was right, she said.

"Contrary to what many people want to tell you, not many American workers would line up to pick (fruit) in 90-degree heat," she said. "I feel very threatened right now."

Around harvest from August to October, the busiest time, the Hollabaughs employ about 25 migrant workers. Last year, with an Easter freeze and a drought, the harvest was not as big as usual, so the workload was more manageable. But, she's not sure what will happen in a fruitful year.

"It all comes down to being able to harvest in a timely and quality fashion," said Will Lower Jr. of Boyer Nurseries and Orchards. "There's only a certain window in which you can harvest."

Lower said Boyer Nurseries is fortunate to have a stable, migrant workforce, many members of which have been there for years. But, there are fewer coming around, and if there is not legislation like a guest-worker program helping farmers, Lower believes Eckel's announcement may be the harbinger of bad things to come not only for agriculture, but for consumers, too.

With not enough local workers, and fewer migrant workers, farmers will not harvest as much. Prices will increase and consumers will become more reliant on food from overseas, much of which can come with less strict regulations.

"I think the fate of our industry and the destiny of it will depend on government policy, and whether it's favorable to us or unfavorable," Lower said. "It will determine a lot of our future, and again, the supply of available products to the consumer.
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