SALEM, Ohio – When harvest season rolls around at K.W. Zellers and Sons, it’s a race against time to get the vegetables out of the field before they go bad. It’s a race that would be lost without the help of about 150 seasonal workers, according to company president Jeff Zellers.
“We are very labor intensive and if we don’t have people, we’re out of business. It’s plain and simple,” Zellers said.
Zellers, a Hartville vegetable grower who is also first vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, is one of many U.S. producers keeping a close watch on the immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate.
A bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee March 27 proposes a special guest worker program for 1.5 million immigrant workers in the agricultural industry. These workers can earn permanent, legal residency in the U.S. Another temporary worker program included in the bill would allow as many as 400,000 people per year to enter the U.S. for nonagricultural jobs.
Requirements. The bill would also allow 11-12 million undocumented workers to stay in the U.S. if they can meet certain provisions. They must have held a steady job since January 2004, undergo a criminal background check and pay a $1,000 fine for their previous illegal status.
These workers would receive special nonimmigrant visas good for six years and after that period they could apply for a permanent work visa or green card if they pay back taxes and stay out of trouble.
The Senate’s version of the bill will have to be reconciled with the bill passed in December by the House. The House bill focuses on increased border security. It had no provisions for legalization of undocumented workers or temporary worker programs.
President George W. Bush has endorsed the concept of a temporary guest worker program.
Big loss. During the recent Ohio Farm Bureau presidents’ trip to Washington D.C., Pat Wolf, American Farm Bureau senior director of congressional relations, said the U.S. would lose one-third of its fruit and vegetable industry overnight if the country closes its doors to immigrant workers.
The loss would amount to $5-9 billion annually.
“Agriculture is the most dependent of any industry on migrant labor,” she said.
Critics have said a guest worker program takes jobs away from U.S. citizens, but Zellers said although he employs some local people, there aren’t many U.S. citizens willing to do the kind of work a farm has to offer.
“We have some folks come in looking for work and they don’t last too long,” he said.
Other critics have accused farmers of taking advantage of the migrant workforce, but Zellers said the seasonal workers on his farm make “well in excess of minimum wage.”
“No one working for us makes minimum wage,” he said.
On March 31, farmers and nursery owners set up a stand at Cleveland’s West Side Market with produce priced extraordinarily high to show shoppers what could happen if migrant workers aren’t available to agriculture.
“Border protection without a workforce solution would be catastrophic for Ohio agriculture and food prices,” said Karl Losely, president of Herman Losely and Son and president of the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association.
Bill Stalter, executive director of the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association, said he also expects price increases if the U.S. does not have a guest worker program.
“I suspect prices would go up on the food we eat and the trees and shrubs we plant,” he said.
Current programs. According to Stalter, many employers in the nursery and landscaping industry use the country’s current guest worker programs, H-2A and H-2B, even though they’re difficult to use and understand.
“Revising the H-2A and H-2B programs would be exactly what we are looking for,” he said.
Tom Demaline, president of Willoway Nurseries, said it’s important for Ohioans to know what could be lost without a guest worker program.
“America needs to secure its borders, but we should not bankrupt thousands of American farmers and force the U.S. to import most of its produce,” he said.
Zellers said the agricultural industry isn’t advocating amnesty or allowing foreigners to take advantage of the U.S. welfare system.
“We’re talking about plugging the holes in our borders and at the same time protecting U.S. farmers and consumers. In fact, we don’t think you can succeed at one without the other,” he said.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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