March 1, 2017


Immigration debate raises concerns among growers, farmworkers


By James A. Jones, Jr.

MANATEE COUNTY -- President Trump set off alarm bells in the Florida farming community with his pledge to build a wall between Mexico and the United States and to crack down on millions of immigrants living in this country without the proper legal documents.

Growers have consistently been among the most ardent advocates for immigration reform and a viable guest worker program. But those reforms have been blocked by a dysfunctional political system, and growers worry they could pay the price if the labor to harvest their crops disappears.

Jaap-Jan De Greef ran a labor camp for 35 years at Whisenant Farms in East Manatee, which was recognized as a model for the industry because of the respectful way it cared for its farmworkers, including offering them educational opportunities.

De Greef says that in all his years at Whisenant Farms, he had only five American citizens apply for jobs there, and when they learned they would be working outside in the sun, often crouched over, none of them accepted those jobs.

Yet, some say all undocumented immigrants should be deported because they are taking jobs away from Americans.

“They don’t know what they are talking about,” De Greef said.

Local growers agree they have historically been unable to find Americans willing to harvest the crops, and that the temporary visa program for foreign agricultural workers is overly complicated.

Bob Spencer, president of West Coast Tomato, said he understands the need to protect the nation’s borders.

“There are national security issues in play,” he said.

But he also understands the need to protect the labor supply to harvest crops, and to protect the farmworkers themselves.

“The workers are essential to us. They are part of our family,” Spencer said.

A sensible guest worker program would help ensure the safety and well-being of farmworkers, who sometime live in the shadows and are afraid to report when they are exploited or become the victims of crime, Spencer said.


Every specialty farmer concerned

One fourth-generation tomato grower in Manatee County, who asked not to be identified, said there is not a local farm involved in growing specialty crops, like tomatoes, that is not concerned about the immigration debate.

Consumers should be concerned, too. And they will be when the produce they have always bought cheaply in their neighborhood supermarket becomes hard to find or too expensive because of a farmworker shortage, he warned.

There is also the multiplier effect of money earned by farmworkers that goes into the local economy. In Manatee County, agriculture and tourism are the leading drivers of the local economy.

Antonio Santamaria, owner of a western wear store in Palmetto, recently told the Bradenton Herald that he was already feeling the effects of uncertainty among farmworkers who are holding off on buying boots, hats and other clothing items.

Jim Delgado, an attorney with Kallins, Little & Delgado in Palmetto, said he has never seen so much fear and anxiety among Manatee County’s immigrant population.

“I have gotten a lot of visits in my office from people who are freaked out. The first thing I tell them is to calm down and ask them, ‘When did they feel safe?’ Most say never, so I ask them what else has changed?” Delgado said. “I truly believe in the good nature of the American people. I believe cool heads will take over.”


Who will harvest crops?

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said the rhetoric about deportation of immigrants has everyone nervous, and that growers worry about the availability of labor to harvest crops.

“We are very strong advocates for immigration reform and the guest worker program. Labor has been short for the last couple of years in general,” Brown said. “We are continuing to get the crops harvested, but it is a tight labor market. Everyone is trying to manage their crews with the intent of being able to harvest the crop. We are seeing greater use of the guest worker program.”

The guest worker program is fairly cumbersome and expensive, and it may be the only source of labor growers will have available in the near term, Brown said.

The industry is investing time and energy in developing mechanical mechanical harvesting, but that would seem to be five or more years before those efforts begin to bear fruit, Brown said.

At West Coast Tomato, the company has been investing in new machinery and automation where possible. A sorting area for tomatoes dumped from bins onto conveyor belts formerly needed 36 workers, and now handles the work with only 12, Spencer said.

Politics remains a stumbling block for solving an essentially political problem.

“The industry has been working for the better part of a decade with the administration and Congress on immigration reform. But it has been a very frustrating process,” Brown said. “There was an immigration bill passed in the Senate with bipartisan support that never saw the light of day in the House.

“Currently, we are continuing to voice our concerns and needs of the industry to Congress. If we are going to produce fresh fruit and vegetables in the United States, there will need to be a domestic workforce. It’s a critical factor,” Brown added.

Kenny Foy of Utopia Farms said farmers are now between seasons, and it is a bit of a guessing game about what will happen when it’s time to harvest the next crop.

“There may be a problem with the next season. I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” Foy said.

De Greef closed the Whisenant Farms labor camp last year, after seven seasons of failing to turn a profitable tomato crop.

At one time, the camp could accommodate 185 people. But more than half of those buildings have since been razed. Recently, other growers have begun expressing interest in the Whisenant camp, which could house about 75 workers.

The issue of immigrant workers goes begging for a solution, De Greef said.

“Our politicians need to work that out with our neighboring countries,” he said.