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Labor shortage forces Texas grower to destroy crops, cut back on acres

 

 

Cannot-GrowFeb. 12, 2014—Short 20 field workers, Lubbock, Texas, farmer Bernie Thiel estimates he lost about $200,000 last year when he was forced to shred some of his crops as they sat untouched in the field.  Thiel, who’s been farming for more than 40 years, mainly grows fresh market zucchini and yellow squash, which, like most produce, won’t wait around for workers to be available for harvest. 

Weather wreaked havoc on Thiel’s first crop in summer 2013, but the second came around okay.  It was the workers who didn’t show up.  Thiel had about 30 employees, but needed 50. Unable to get all of his crops out of the ground in time, he had to destroy 10 acres or so of that second crop, and leave additional acres in the field.  With his third crop, Thiel reduced his plantings by 10 acres. 

For the past two years, despite advertising heavily on local radio stations and in newspapers, Thiel could not find any new workers who were willing to stick it out for the whole season.  “Those who did come out were here for two or three days, maybe a week, and then they were gone,” he said. 

 As a result, instead of the normal four crews he’d sent out at one time, he could typically send out only three crews, three-and-a-half at best. 

While Thiel would be happy with anyone who would work the entire season, he said having experienced workers is key. 

 “We pack for the fresh market, so they really need to know what to pack, how to pack and when to pack.  Your pack and your quality are what sell your product,” he explained. 

A number of Thiel’s workers know the job inside and out, having joined him from Mexico for three or four months of harvesting and packing for the past 25 years or so.  Still, fewer return every year and those who do are not getting any younger.  The current federal guest worker program, H-2a, with its extensive paperwork and long wait for workers, has proven far more frustrating and costly than helpful for Thiel and many other growers. 

Thiel emphasized that he is hardly the only farmer who is looking at reducing his acreage so he doesn’t have to leave crops on the ground.  In fact, this labor shortage has a ripple effect throughout the economy.  With fewer crops going into the ground, Thiel will be buying less packing materials and inputs like fertilizer. It also affects other people Thiel does business with, like the retailers who count on having his fresh produce in their stores. 

“There’s no doubt it will begin to affect consumers,” Thiel said.  “We’re going to have less of our produce grown here in the United States.”

Thiel is among thousands of farmers and ranchers calling on Congress to address immigration reform and create a cost-effective agriculture worker program that will allow him to hire the workers he needs and ultimately ensure American consumers have access to U.S.-grown food. 

Proponents of immigration reform are hitting Congress hard with their message this month as part of the #IFarmImmigration campaign.  More than 70 of the largest American agricultural groups have joined the American Farm Bureau Federation  in this campaign, which is coordinated by the Partnership for a New American Economy.

For more details on the campaign and to share your support for immigration reform, go to http://www.iamimmigration.org/index.html .

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