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Onions, Apples, Tomatoes and Immigration Reform: We Owe it to Ourselves

If we don't fix our immigrant worker system, then onion, apple, and tomato farmers may make decisions that, though good for them, lead to higher prices and less choice for consumers.
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If you own a garden, have ever experimented with gardening, or are even vaguely aware of fluctuations in availability and prices of produce in your supermarket, you know that different fruits and vegetables have different seasons. April will soon be upon us, the beginning of another spring, and harvest time for many crops in the U.S.

For instance, if you happen to live in Vidalia, Georgia -- "The Sweet Onion City" (population 10,503 in 2010) -- you know that onion season, your name sake, has officially begun. You might even celebrate and attend the annual onion festival, where you can have a burger, enter the cooking competition, or just enjoy some deep fried rings while watching the battle of the bands.

Georgia takes much pride in its agriculture. According to the Georgia Farm Bureau, Georgian agriculture is a $68 billion industry -- Georgia's oldest and largest industry for almost three centuries. One in seven Georgians works in agriculture, forestry, or a related field, and with its ideal mix of climate and soil virtually any crop will grow. But crops neither plant nor pick themselves and, as illustrated by the prized Vidalia onion, our broken immigrant worker system presents significant challenges for agriculture.

The issue came to a head last year, when due to the crackdown in immigration laws, labor shortages were experienced during harvest time. Some of the sweet Vidalias weren't getting picked, crops were lost, and some farmers were reconsidering their means of livelihood. Should they try new methods of attracting workers? How much more could they afford to pay? Should they change crops to less labor intensive and less lucrative peanuts? Onion picking is not automated, it's "back breaking," and most people avoid the work if they can.

Agricultural labor shortages weren't only felt in Georgia last year. On the other side of the country, while Washington state was enjoying its second largest crop in history, some apple growers experienced a 40-50 percent shortage in labor and experienced crop losses of up to 25 percent. Though picking pay was raised, the increases were not enough to attract sufficient workers. Martin Estrada, manager of Monkey Ridge Ranch, a huge apple plantation on Snake River, commented that pickers drove by, checked the picking pay, and often drove off dissatisfied. Though Washington produces many fruits and vegetables, apples are its top farm commodity: supporting nearly 60,000 jobs and generating an estimated $7 billion annually. Though growing capacity has increased, labor has decreased. In response to last year's shortage of labor, the state government intervened and allowed prison labor to be used -- as did the Vidalia onion farmers in 2012.

In 2011, a similar shortage happened in Alabama -- rumored to be the perfect place for growing tomatoes. Brian Cash, whose family owns a 125 acre farm atop Chandler Mountain, estimated a $100,000 loss due to the immigrant crackdown and shortages in labor. He was unable to find replacements for the grueling field work. In response to what some considered a commercial disaster, smaller crops -- to compensate for the reduced labor -- were planted in 2012. One squash producer reported moving production to Tennessee; while Jimmy Miller, a tomato grower, switched crops to cotton and peanuts as these are more easily automated and less labor intensive.

Should America's farmers be dealing with these obstacles to production? Should American consumers be paying higher prices for produce due to these same obstacles?

This is not an argument in defense of undocumented farm workers. Though some farmers might prefer the lower costs of an undocumented worker, others have expressed their support of tighter borders and a proper legal process. Bottom-line: farmers don't want to lose their crops, whether their workers are legal or not.

Some farmers -- having annually applied through the visa system for the appropriate number of guest workers -- have complained that governmental constraints get worse each year. R.T. Stanley, a Georgia onion grower, explained how he had applied for 60 workers, but only 17 arrived -- allegedly the paperwork got lost.

Rumors of immigration reform are in the air with much discussion focused on high-skill workers in science, technology and engineering. The agricultural industry illustrates, however, that comprehensive immigration reform affecting workers with varying levels of skill will be to our country's economic advantage. Immigrant workers, besides their contribution as workers, also contribute economically as consumers. Workers need to be housed, pay rent, buy clothing, and eat. In addition, immigrant consumers often have different tastes than the native-born, opening new markets and expanding the range of consumer options. For example, Wal-Mart reported carrying beef tongue and tripe to satisfy a growing Latino market. New markets spur growth, economic development, and broader consumer choices.

If we don't fix our immigrant worker system, then onion, apple, and tomato farmers may make decisions that, though good for them, lead to higher prices and less choice for consumers. Perhaps it is time for the onion to leave Vidalia, Georgia, and be replaced by the peanut; maybe we ought not fight it. Maybe it's an easy switch to enjoy ourselves at a peanut festival instead. But does this make sense when fixing the broken immigration system can benefit both producers and consumers? It's time for comprehensive immigration reform; we owe it to ourselves.

Jean Boucher and James Witte

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