Who picks your fruit?

If it were not for illegal immigrants, most Americans would be starving — and this is not simply my little opinion. This is what “specialty growers” will tell you, and they are the farmers who grow the food that people actually eat, like fruits and vegetables. And they rely heavily on the labor of illegal immigrants. Depending on whom you ask, it is estimated that somewhere between 30-70% of our food is picked by illegal immigrants. And based upon my conversations with growers, I’m pretty sure the 70% number is closer to the truth. Last year I was at a conference and mistakenly wound up in a session on how to hire legal immigrant workers. Although I realized fairly quickly that I would not be using any of the information in the session, I couldn’t leave because I was shocked by what I was hearing. Although the topic was not new to me, it was a perspective I had never heard.

All three of the Illinois fruit growers openly admitted to hiring illegal immigrants to work on their farms because they were unable to find enough employees otherwise. Even then, one man talked about watching thousands of dollars of apples rot on the trees a couple years earlier because he couldn’t get enough people — legal or illegal — to pick them. So, then they talked about the guest worker program, which is very expensive. They said it cost about $5,000 to get a single worker into this country legally. And before you can do that, you have to prove that you tried really hard to hire citizens. In addition to providing copies of ads run in your local newspapers, you also have to run ads in three other communities with high unemployment rates, proving that you can’t find Americans to do the jobs.

Since that day more than a year ago, when I saw a gray-haired man on the verge of tears worried about the future of his orchard, I’ve been paying attention to the labor articles when my copies of American Fruit Grower and Vegetable Grower News arrive every month. Because we have no employees, I foolishly ignored those articles in the past, assuming they didn’t affect me. But this situation affects every person in this country because we all eat.

In US Apple Urges Congress to Act on Agricultural Labor, Dale Foreman, who grows apples, pears, and cherries, in Wenatchee, WA, was quoted from his testimony before the U. S. House of Representatives:

In 2011, we experienced the worst labor shortages I have ever seen. Tragically, we did not have nearly enough workers. The situation grew so dire that in early October we ran radio ads throughout our area asking for workers and offering them up to $150 per day to help us pick our apples. Even with the barrage of radio ads, we were only able to recruit three additional pickers. We needed more than 100.

In Help Wanted in the Fight For Labor, blackberry grower Gary Paulk in Georgia said that his state’s new anti-immigrant law cost him $250,000 last year because he didn’t have enough workers to pick all of his berries. The law kept many illegal immigrants out of the state, and he found himself 150 workers short of what he needed, as he watched 25 acres of blackberries rot and fall to the ground. The article goes on to say,

It wasn’t like Paulk just threw up his hands. He tried working with the
state Department of Labor, just like state legislators suggested,
because Georgia has a 10% unemployment rate. “I asked for 25 workers for
starters, and I got one,” he says. “We have a family operation, and we
all own a piece, so we all put applications in for workers, but we never
got any more applicants.”

And Paulk is just one of many growers negatively impacted by Georgia’s new hard stance against illegal immigrants. The Help Wanted article also says, “A study conducted by the University of Georgia noted that total losses
to the state economy from the first year of its law against illegal
immigration were estimated at $391 million.” And that only includes what the farmers lost.

The U.S. government also lost all of those Social Security dollars. A lot of people mistakenly believe that illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes, but that’s not true. Typically they have a SS number that is fake, so when the employer pays them, they also pay into the SS system — and that is money that will never be taken out by the worker because they will not be retiring in this country and collecting the money that they paid into the system. If all illegal immigrants were deported tomorrow, the Social Security Administration would suddenly find itself with $7 billion less paid into it next year, which is obviously not good.

Paulk said, “A lot of campaign promises were made, saying these people are taking
jobs from Georgia residents, and myths like they don’t pay taxes, and
that’s just not true.”

There are a lot of reasons that Americans don’t want these jobs, such as long days, no overtime, and often high temperatures. The incidence of heat stroke is twenty times higher in farm workers than other jobs. The biggest deterrent, however, is probably the fact that a job only lasts a few weeks. They’re called migrant farm workers because they move from farm to farm and often state to state to pick whatever fruit or vegetable is in season. There is no job security, no benefits, and little room for advancement.

In Common Sense and Immigration, Pennsylvania grower Brad Hollabaugh said,

“Should the politics of the day result in America abandoning agriculture
in favor of implementing restrictive immigration policies that have no
transitory worker solutions, there will be a massive collapse in our
food system. We all want a safe food supply. But the security of our
nation lies in our ability to feed our nation. Jeopardizing our ability
to feed ourselves is diametrically opposed to the intent of securing our

And his wife, Kay Hollabaugh, testified before the Pennsylvania Senate, asking legislators to not make E-verify mandatory:

“The E-Verify program has proven to be flawed. Simple reading of what
has happened in Arizona should make that painfully clear. Unauthorized
workers are slipping through, while U.S. citizens are being flagged as
illegal. How can we possibly think that this is a system that is
working? As a small business owner, this is yet the next piece of
legislation that causes further paperwork and more man hours for the
management of our business. We are already stretched painfully thin
simply keeping up with the mountains of paperwork and regulations that
already exist. Further, if we are required to use the E-Verify system
and if our workers are found to be undocumented, where is the work force
that is ready to step to the plate to harvest our fruits and
vegetables? They do not exist. If our workers are found to be
undocumented and they are taken away, we will no longer be able to
harvest our crops. If you are scared of immigrant laborers, just wait
until we have to be at the mercy of other countries to obtain our food.
Now that’s scary.”

I really don’t like talking or writing about anything remotely close
to politics because everyone has their own pundits and politicians whom
they love and trust, and if you say anything opposite to them, people
tend to ignore you or get mad at you. That said, I had to go out on a
limb here to talk about something that will never be solved by politics
until people start talking about this honestly. And since I’m not
running for office, I can be brutally honest. You see, politicians have a
tough time talking about this honestly because it’s complicated. It
can’t be summed up in a five-second sound bite. And even worse, their
opponent could take a couple comments out of context and make it sound
really bad. It is just easier for them to say what people want to hear — export all the illegal immigrants and then everyone will have jobs. But that’s not true. There is a labor shortage in agriculture, and it is only being made worse by this political rhetoric.

The sad thing is that the only people in Georgia and Arizona who are in pain are the farmers, and since less than two percent of the population is farmers, they don’t wield much political power. And don’t let the farm lobbyists fool you — they represent the Big Ag corporations. Because we have a global food supply, the shelves in the grocery stores in Georgia and Arizona are still full, so the average voters there have no clue what’s happening. After losing a quarter of a million dollars last year, Paulk has plowed under his 25 acres of blueberries and is planning to plant it in something that can be machine harvested like cotton. So, financially he might be okay down the road. However, as more farmers can’t find people to pick their fruits and vegetables, more will move to crops that can be harvested by machine, and then we will find ourselves in the same position as Great Britain during World War II when people were starving because they had been importing most of their food.

Importation of food in the U.S. has been growing steadily. As I wrote in Homegrown & Handmade, between 1995 and 2005, we increased importation of tree nuts from 40 to 54 percent and processed fruit from 20 to 37 percent. By 2009, 30 percent of our produce was imported from other countries. This isn’t happening overnight. Our food security is gradually slipping away, from one state to another, one farmer to another. As each blueberry field or apple orchard is abandoned, we will simply import a little more fruit. And before you know it, we will be as dependent upon the rest of the world for our food as we are today for our fuel. Instead of fighting wars for oil, we’ll be fighting for pistachios.

8 thoughts on “Who picks your fruit?”

  1. Wow…just…wow! Where I live in Canada, most of our fruit and veg are imported from the US and Mexico, which is a bit scary, and what goes on in the US defintitely has an impact on us. This is pretty terrifying!

  2. I agree with Michelle. Wow. No words. I am totally with you on not talking much about politics. I have a rule that I don't bring up politics or religion in mixed company because my views don't align with much of my family. Each post you write just keeps confirming to me that our decision to become responsible for our family's food supply is of utmost importance. Thank you.

  3. Very well said …. I live in Central California's San Joaquin Valley. This area grows a lot of the countries stone fruit and citrus, and yes there are a lot of pickers that I am sure are illegal. Then there is the problem of them having children, their children go to school here, some are top students then they find out they were brought here illegally thru no fault of their own and they want to deport them to a country that is totally unfamiliar to them. Or their children are born here and they want to deport the parents but the children are US citizens. US census found this area is 85% Hispanic, I think we should just make Mexico the 51st state and that would solve a few problems. But might create a lot more … ok I'll get off my soap box.

  4. Excellent post Deb. I for one, LOVE talking politics on my blog and feel that opposing opinions, followed by action can make a difference. Another symptom adding to this problem does indeed point again at our own government. Too many folks currently out of work in this country would prefer to remain out of work rather than "lower" themselves to pick fruit. And why not when unemployment will pay them more to stay home for endless weeks, than a farmer can afford to pay them for honest work. Farmwork is now considered less respectable than unemployment.

  5. The solution is for the U.S. to do away with unemployment benefits altogether. Then these entitled slackers currently on the dole would be forced to pick fruit to survive while also helping to take jobs away from criminals (illegal immigrants). Of course people are not going to pick fruit when they make $12 an hour sitting on their arses collecting unemployment

  6. It is not a case of "lowering oneself"; try it for one day……I dare you!
    Though what may work is to threaten a mandatory harvesting job if other work can not be found. In addition, oversea it is common to get gov't assistance with a stipulation that so many hours be committed working in local or national agencies filing paperwork or mowing city parks!
    And where are they getting $12 an hour unemployment? I never saw that in Texas or oversea!

  7. A great five-year post. So relevant for us to think about again today, given the political situation.
    We want cheap produce, though it is one of the most labor-intensive products. Most of us (myself included) have no idea what it’s like to work a job that’s temporary, unsecured, backbreaking, heatstroke-causing, repetitive, and not respected. These jobs should earn full-time pay for 4-hour shifts, IMHO.


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