Tomato Growers Cut Crop amid Immigration Worries

Tomato growers in New Jersey say tougher immigration enforcement may change this year's crop. It's getting harder to hire the migrant laborers — many of them from Mexico — who traditionally pick tomatoes during the few weeks when they're ripe.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

An update now on the food market. Tomato growers on the East Coast say their crop is under threat - not from drought or disease, but from immigration policy. Some farmers in New Jersey have stopped planting tomatoes because they're worried they won't find enough workers to pick them.

Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: John Rigolizzo farms about 300 acres in south Jersey, the same land his father and grandfather worked before him. There was a time when Rigolizzo started a million tomato seedlings in his greenhouses. Now those greenhouses are abandoned. They're for sale, along with thousands of wooden stakes that used to support the tomato vines.

Mr. JOHN RIGOLIZZO (Farmer, New Jersey): There's 20,000 tomato stakes here right in front of you, and there's no way that I can go back to tomatoes or that kind of vegetable production.

ROSE: Tomatoes are fragile. They all ripen over a few weeks, and they need to be picked by hand seven days a week. It's hard work. Rigolizzo says he can't afford to compete with employers offering easier working conditions. For years, he says, the only people he could find to pick his tomatoes for $8.00 an hour were migrant workers, many of them undocumented. Rigolizzo used to house 40 workers at a time on his farm. Now he has one.

Mr. RIGOLIZZO: Did you change it?

Mr. JOSE CHAVEZ (Migrant Worker): (Spanish spoken)

ROSE: Rigolizzo and Jose Chavez are trying to fix a broken tractor so they can start planting. Chavez, who has his green card, has worked here on and off since 1995. He says it's gotten harder for undocumented workers to cross the border from Mexico. And once they are in the country, Chavez says they're facing tougher enforcement of immigration laws on the highways and even the local back roads.

Mr. CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)

ROSE: If the police see a carload of people who look like Mexicans, says Chavez, they're going to stop them.

That's making a lot of farmers nervous. In March, Pennsylvania's largest tomato grower announced he's not planting the crop this year. Farmers in New Jersey are also making their decisions about what to plant. Rick Van Vranken is an agricultural expert at Rutgers University.

Professor RICK VAN VRANKEN (Agriculture, Rutgers University): You can't wait to see what the labor's going to be in July. They're looking at the rumors and the perceptions of what the labor market could be and making a decision now.

ROSE: Van Vranken says New Jersey farmers can spend upwards of $10,000 an acre to produce tomatoes.

Prof. VAN VRANKEN: So it's a pretty significant investment at this time of year to think, well, in four months, I may not be able to harvest this crop.

ROSE: Ken Harris stands between rows of flowering peach and nectarine trees on his farm in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Harris says he would gladly hire more documented legal workers if he could find them.

Mr. KEN HARRIS (Farmer, New Jersey): Somebody asked me the other day, why is it you have to have the Mexican immigrants doing all this work? My answer to that is I haven't seen anybody else knock on my door in 15 years asking to do it.

ROSE: New Jersey's Secretary of Agriculture Charles Kuperus says it's not unusual for farmers to worry about finding the labor to pick their crops by hand.

Secretary CHARLES KUPERUS (Department of Agriculture, New Jersey): Generally, I hear that every year. But it's growing more intense. And really, they're looking for our federal legislators to move on the appropriate reforms in order to accommodate people coming and then going back home.

ROSE: Farmers say the current federal guest worker program is too slow and inflexible, but efforts to overhaul the program and allow more farm workers into the country legally have stalled out in Congress.

John Rigolizzo says he pushed hard for reform when he was president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau and got nowhere.

Mr. RIGOLIZZO: So we've had to adjust. I've gone from 300 acres of vegetables and 100 acres of fruit down to 200 acres of grain. And we just do what we can do ourselves, because there's nobody here to help.

(Soundbite of engine starting)

ROSE: That's why when Rigolizzo and his only farmhand get their tractor fixed, they'll head off to the field to plant corn and string beans. He says he won't make as much as he did selling tomatoes, but at least he can harvest the crops by machine.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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