Stalled immigration reform causes major Pa. grower to end production

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CLARKS SUMMIT, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s largest producer of fresh market tomatoes will no longer grow labor intensive food, citing the failure of the U.S. Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform with a viable guest worker program for agriculture.

Keith Eckel, the owner of Fred W. Eckel Sons Farms in Lackawanna County, said the risk is simply too great, knowing that the huge investment in a crop would be lost if he can’t get it to the market.

Doomed

Eckel’s farm produces approximately 125 trailer truck loads of fresh market tomatoes each year that are marketed and consumed throughout the eastern United States.

“The fruit and vegetable business in the United States is doomed without a viable guest worker program. We simply don’t have a willing and adequate domestic workforce to do the job. The lack of action in Washington has forced me to leave the tomato and pumpkin business,” said Eckel, who is a recent appointee by President Bush to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development.

Placing blame

“Keith Eckel’s agonizing decision is the result of Washington’s inability to get a reliable immigrant farm worker program over the goal line,” said Pennsylvania Farm Bureau

President Carl Shaffer.

“The consequences are real and will continue to mount for consumers, our economy, our food supply and the agriculture industry.”

Frustration

Eckel noted that the decision was difficult and frustrating. He said it will result in the loss of nearly 175 jobs and mark the end of his family’s production of tomatoes, which dates back to 1970.

“Despite years of debate over the immigration issue, the only consistent message I am hearing is that sanctions should be brought against employers. They want employers to take on the entire responsibility of oversight, which in fact is the job of government,” added Eckel.

Eckel said his decision will not only directly affect workers at the farm, it will also impact restaurants and grocery stores, other businesses that market his products, companies that supply services to the farm and trucking that moves the products to markets.

“Other farmers across the Commonwealth will have to re-think what their farms will produce in the future if a solution is not reached soon in Washington,” Shaffer said.

“Our nation will be less secure if we end up relying on foreign countries for our food supply. The choice of fresh, locally-grown food will be gone.

“Consumers, farmers and our economy will suffer the consequences, and the rural character of Pennsylvania will change forever.”

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