Tomato Growers Cut Crop amid Immigration Worries
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: Did you change it?
MONTAGNE: (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.
MONTAGNE: (Spanish spoken)
ROSE: 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.
P: 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.
P: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
ROSE: 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: John Rigolizzo says he pushed hard for reform when he was president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau and got nowhere.
MONTAGNE: 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.
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ROSE: For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
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