Special Report: A dwindling workforce for local farmers

09/27/2013 7:00 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Many in the local agricultural industry say finding suitable farmhands is becoming a challenge because of an increased focus on proper documentation of workers, economics that limit how much farmers can pay and a visa program they say is too expensive.

Constantine Curup’s life as a farm worker would hardly be considered enviable.

The Guatemalan immigrant left his family in 2002 to work in the fields of Long Island.

“It’s hard, because we work in the sun, in the humidity,” said Mr. Curup, who earns $12 an hour. But his English skills have improved in his 11 years here, which helped him in picking up some better-paying landscaping work. He hasn’t seen his wife and three children — two girls and a boy, all in their teens — since 2007.

He doesn’t know when he’ll see them again.

“I have to do so much for my family,” Mr. Curup said as he waited to pay for a sports drink at a Polish Town deli one recent afternoon.

Local farmers say the number of people willing to live a life like Mr. Curup’s is dwindling — and not due only to the long, hard hours and time away from their families. Immigrant farm workers look at working in the fields as a stepping stone to more lucrative and more comfortable jobs, so they’re not likely to return after landing positions in other industries. It’s also becoming more problematic to hire such workers if they’re not in the country legally.

Scrutiny of national immigration policies has intensified in recent years and farmers have experienced greater pressure from more scrupulous government monitoring of illegal hiring practices. Many immigrants have also returned to their home countries because of the prolonged downturn in the U.S. economy.

“Usually you have lots of people knocking on the door, and this spring there was nobody,” said Paulette Satur, owner of the 180-acre Satur Farms in Cutchogue.

This season, she said, her field worker staff is down by 40 percent, pushing her to change which crops she grows and when she grows them.

Philip Schmitt of the 165-acre Schmitt Family Farms in Riverhead said he had to leave some crops to wilt in the fields this year — lettuce and turnips, for example, both labor-intensive crops — due to a lack of farmhands.

“We basically stopped taking orders [on parsley] because we didn’t have time to bunch it,” Mr. Schmitt said. “As it’s tightened up, some [immigrant workers] have gone to working for catering halls, where the money is better and they are working in air conditioning.”

Mr. Schmitt usually needs 20 to 25 workers during busy times, but he’s been trying to get by with just 15 to 18.

ON REFORM

Immigration reform advocates have championed recent efforts in Washington, D.C., specifically the Senate’s passage of a reform bill in June, as part of the answer, saying it will bring relief to employers, immigrant workers and the overall economy by getting more people on the tax rolls. But local farmers say the revamped guest worker programs included in the bill come with the same fundamental flaw as the current program: it’s too expensive for the growers, especially at the smaller farms that dot Long Island’s East End.

Joe Gergela of the Long Island Farm Bureau, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Calverton, said local farmers simply cannot afford to pay workers higher wages.

For one thing, he explained, small farm operations are much more sensitive to the slightest changes in the cost of growing and preparing products for market. Larger companies like Dole and Green Giant — or “big agriculture out west,” as Mr. Gergela calls it — have lower overhead costs because they use machinery and automated production procedures instead of relying on bodies to care for and harvest crops.

Because local farms must compete with larger operations, which set market rates, they can’t raise their prices to make up for higher wages, Mr. Gergela said.

Currently, the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program allows farmers to bring in foreign workers for up to one year, with extensions available for up to three years total. Although there is no cap on the number of workers who can enter the country legally through the program, it’s under-used because of the high costs associated with it, he said.

According to data from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, New York State farmers petitioned for 3,953 guest workers in 2012. Only 23 of those petitions — less than one-half of 1 percent — came from farmers in Suffolk County.

“It’s cumbersome, expensive and farmers do not want to deal with that type of program,” Mr. Gergela said.

Under the H-2A program, farmers are required by the Department of Labor to pay guest workers what’s called the adverse wage effect rate, an average hourly wage calculated regionally by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according Mr. Gergela and the department’s website. The New York State rate is $10.91 an hour, higher than what some farmers say they can currently afford to pay. And, Mr. Gergela explained, if growers bring on a guest worker, the minimum rate becomes mandatory for all other workers on the farm. At the same time, the rate in New York is higher than in western states like California – home of the Green Giant — where the adverse wage effect rate is currently $10.74 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor at dol.gov.

H-2A program requirements also make farmers responsible not only for the guest worker’s room and board here but also for their round-trip travel costs to the U.S. and back home.

There are about 5,000 agricultural workers on the East End, Mr. Gergela said. An estimated 60 percent of that workforce, or 3,000 people, are undocumented workers from other countries, he said.

While there is currently no official limit on the number of agricultural guest workers allowed annually under the H-2A program, only 183,860 visas were granted in 2012, according to the Department of Homeland Security website, dhs.gov. Yet close to 1.4 million workers are needed annually nationwide, Mr. Gergela said.

The Senate’s new immigration reform bill, if enacted, would cap the number of agricultural guest workers at 112,333 annually for the first three years. After the three-year mark, the bill reads, those numbers would be re-evaluated and adjusted, depending on the need and the economy. Farmers would still foot the bill for room, board and travel under the proposed program.

Under the bill, the hourly wage rate for some workers would drop to a national minimum of $9.19 per hour — at least for the first year. But wages would also vary with a worker’s job description; equipment operators, for example, would earn an hourly minimum of $11.30.

The proposed law also includes a new Blue Card provision, which Mr. Schmitt said could affect his workforce.

The Blue Card would give agricultural workers who “have performed agricultural employment in the United States for not fewer than 575 hours or 100 work days during the 2-year period ending on Dec. 31, 2012,” U.S. temporary resident status. Eventually, according to the bill, they would be able to earn American citizenship.

Mr. Schmitt warned of unintended consequences under the bill, which he said could actually further deplete the available workforce.

“Once everyone here is documented, they are going to move on to other things,” Mr. Schmitt said. “They are not going to stay on the farm. Who is going to replace them?”

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO |  Workers harvest grapes at a North Fork farm this summer.

THE WORKERS

Most migrant workers now coming to Long Island are from Guatemala, México, El Salvador and Colombia, according to a state Department of Labor spokesman.

In 1990, there were about 2,100 migrant workers in Suffolk County, mostly on the North Fork, with about half living here year-round and the other half traveling the country or internationally during the off season, according to an earlier article published in the Riverhead News-Review. Of that population, roughly 80 percent were Hispanic and 20 percent African-American, the article reported.

A current racial or ethnic breakdown of the local migrant worker population was unavailable.

José Pirir, originally from Guatemala, found his first job on a Long Island farm when he arrived here some 10 years ago.

He said migrant workers see working in the fields as a stepping stone in the local workforce.

“When they first come, they can’t speak English here,” Mr. Pirir said from a Griffing Avenue store in downtown Riverhead recently, where he had been speaking with his mother by phone. “They learn some English and then they start looking for other jobs.”

That’s what he did, he said.

After two years on a farm in Peconic, he found work with a contractor and now does carpentry.

“I was treated good there, but it’s really hard work and they do not pay enough money,” Mr. Pirir said of his life in farming. “I understand why. [The farmers] only get a few dollars for a pound of tomatoes. It’s not easy to pay $20 an hour to have a man pick tomatoes all day.”

He blamed the unstable economy and competition among East End farms for the current shortage of farm workers on the North Fork.

“It depends on the location,” Mr. Pirir said “In Southampton or Bridgehampton they give you $15 an hour. If you go to Sound Avenue [on the North Fork] you’re going to get $10 or $12. Where would you want to go?”

Amagansett farm owner Alex Balsam didn’t deny that farms on the South Fork often pay more.

He said his $15 hourly wage helps him keep the workers he needs — and that he needs to pay those rates.

“We’re in a situation on the South Fork where everything is more expensive,” he said. “We sell our produce for a higher price, but even though it seems higher, it’s just all part of the game out here” on the South Fork, where the cost of living is higher than other areas in the region.

He also said there are so many farms on the North Fork that workers can be harder to come by, due to the demand.

The migrant worker population has increased over the past two decades in part because of the burgeoning wine industry. And vineyard owners say they are facing their own challenges.

“We have steady, year-round employees,” said Ron Goerler Jr., owner of Jamesport Vineyard and president of the Long Island Wine Council trade group. “The real issue has become the part-time people that we need to harvest. You can’t do certain things, say, leaf removal. And if you don’t do it on a timely basis, the fruit can’t ripen properly. Hand-picking is the best, and if you’re trying to make the best quality wine, you still need the bodies to get the work done.”

He also said vineyards are trying to pool resources, noting that he’d received a call just this past Friday from a neighboring winery asking to borrow four or five workers for harvest. And while wineries are getting by, he said, the trend can be alarming to the entire industry.

“A lack of workers presents a lot of different challenges in terms of the future,” Mr. Goerler said. “If you’re not going to have the labor, you’re not going to expand, which means you’re not in a healthy situation.”

THE COSTS

Scrutiny of hiring practices has intensified in recent years, which has also hurt the availability of immigrant workers, Mr. Gergela said, adding that farmers are being audited to ensure paperwork is complete and Social Security cards are available, and it’s happening more frequently than in the past.

“It happens every few years,” he said of the average crackdown on farmers.

“The government has stepped up pressure on employers,” he said. “We have to be careful that workers are who they say they are, which is affecting hiring practices.”

Documentation issues on farms may also be pushing migrant workforce into other sectors, he said.

Some experts say local immigration laws, and with them stepped-up enforcement efforts, have already hurt agriculture in other states.

“In Alabama they lost around 40 percent of their workers when they passed an immigration law, and a similar pattern was repeated in Georgia,” said John Rizzo, an economics professor at Stony Brook University and chief economist for the Long Island Association, a regional business advocacy group. “So we can expect that if it happened on Long Island the agricultural industry would suffer significantly.

“The question is, these undocumented immigrants who are agricultural workers, are they taking jobs away from immigrants who are documented or U.S.-born citizens?” he continued. “I think the evidence suggests that people are not beating down the doors to take these jobs. And if these jobs aren’t filled, the agriculture sector is going to suffer.”

As for the social and public services undocumented workers use, Mr. Rizzo said much evidence suggests that government health care spending for undocumented immigrants — often cited by the public and media pundits — is about 40 to 60 percent below what is spent on other populations.

“The challenge is that undocumented workers aren’t evenly distributed across geographic areas, including Long Island,” he said. “So areas with high concentrations of undocumented immigrants, like Texas and Arizona and some areas of Long Island, may incur substantial net costs to their local and state governments. Undocumented immigrants are going to use public assistance, medical care and schools and with areas of high concentrations, those areas may bear those costs disproportionately.”

Gregory Maney, a professor of sociology at Hofstra University who specializes in day labor markets on Long Island, said there is much evidence that shows a net economic benefit of the overall immigrant workforce in the county.

“I think this emphasis on all take and no giveback to the community is misleading,” Mr. Maney said. “The wages they receive are often low. They are effectively subsidizing the farmers who are using them, and the consumers, who are getting cheaper produce as a result.”

As for the immigration reform measure passed by the Senate, Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), whose district spans the entire East End and Brookhaven Town, called it “a good bill,” but added, “There’s no such thing as a perfect bill.”

He said he believes the bill stands little chance of approval in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where GOP leaders in July declared it ”dead on arrival.”

House Republicans are largely against “path to citizenship” provisions that give immigrants who came here illegally preferential treatment over those living here with proper documentation.

The House will likely be looking at immigration in a piecemeal approach, Mr. Bishop predicted, taking sections from the Senate’s comprehensive bill – which includes the agricultural worker program — and passing them over time. But even that may take a while, he said.

With the conflicts in Syria and fiscal issues taking precedence, Mr. Bishop said, “immigration will be pushed to a very distant back burner.”

Thirty-four thousand acres of farmland can be found in Suffolk County, contributing close to $300 million annually to the state’s agriculture economy — more than any other county in the state, according to the American Farmland Trust.

It’s an industry that could be severely affected by a lack of action in Washington to fix a “broken system,” Mr. Bishop said.

“I have been working with the Long Island Farm Bureau for years on immigration and I will collaborate closely with them as comprehensive reform continues through the legislative process,” he said of the local farmers’ criticisms with the bill passed in June. “The Senate bill is not the law of the land, but it represents progress towards the ultimate goal of delivering farmers the legal and taxpaying workers they need to operate.”

Stressing the local importance of some sort of resolution to the immigration dilemma, Mr. Bishop said that if costs and labor shortage issues drive more and more East End farmers to get out of the business, the region “could have open space preservation issues.”

cmiller@timesreview.com

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