Workers in the agricultural sector have been hard hit by the congressional failure to create a sustainable immigration policy. But one farmer in Pennsylvania — who before this year had operated the largest fresh-market tomato producing farm in the state — says the policy gridlock is forcing him to stop growing tomatoes.
Keith Eckel, a fourth-generation farmer and the owner of Fred W. Eckel Sons Farms in Clarks Summit, Pa., says in a typical year he farms 2.3 million plants. "We normally harvest 200,000 25-pound cartons of tomatoes," he says.
Harvesting requires 110 people to work in the field, he says, and over the years they have been primarily Hispanic workers. "Many of them have come to our same farm for 25 years," he says. "These people do extremely hard work and are doing jobs that our local people will not or care not do, and that would include myself. ... They are critical to our process. Without those harvesters, we're out of business."
Eckel says his decision to close shop is indeed strictly business — he simply can't find the workers. He says for two-and-a-half years he's anxiously awaited political reform for a workable guest worker program that would allow him to staff his fields. Last year, he remembers seeing a significant decline in the amount of available workers. This year, the workers simply aren't there.
"Last year we issued 181 W-2s," Eckel says. "This year we will have five regular employees."
Eckel says migrant workers who were once very mobile now fear moving from one part of the country to another. "With the stepped up enforcement, and the emotion surrounding the issue of immigration, many have chosen not to travel," he says, explaining that many of his seasonal employees no longer feel safe following the circuit from early harvest in Florida and Georgia to work in Virginia and Maryland and finally to Pennsylvania.
In a time when many Americans are facing a potential recession, why can't he find workers to fill their shoes?
"That's a great question," he says. "I had my bookkeeper analyze our payroll records from last year. I indicated we had 75 employees who worked in the field. We divided the total amount of wages paid to those workers by those 75 employees, times the total number of hours that they worked. And we found that their average earnings were $16.59 an hour."
That's a considerable hourly rate for rural Pennsylvania — and compares favorably to wages for many American workers. But there's a problem, Eckel says. "They worked extremely hard to earn that amount of money." His workers are paid on a piece-rate basis, meaning they're paid by how many tomatoes they pack.
"I would never earn that much myself, personally, doing that job," he says. "But they absolutely did. It's not a question of whether or not we're paying enough. It is absolutely a question of whether people are willing and able to do the work."
He's miserable that a lack of workers is forcing him to shutter his tomato operation. "It is the toughest decision that I have made in my life. My dad started planting tomatoes here in 1949. This is the business I love. ... Lots of these employees are my friends, both locally and the immigrant labor."
But he's even more concerned about the larger consequences for America itself. "I believe that the most important thing to recognize, that in this time when we're concerned about food security, food safety and food availability and affordability, it makes no sense to me that we pursue an immigration policy that will cause the production of all fresh fruits and vegetables in this country to move outside of our borders and become dependent on foreign producers just as we are today with fuel."