By G.B. CRAWFORD
For the Capital Press
If you are a typical, native-born U.S. citizen, you are not willing to perform manual farm labor.
Farm owners have reported difficulties in hiring such prospective employees in their operations for decades. Retaining them on the job has also been just as big a problem.
The issue involves consumers as well as growers. Manual labor is essential for producing fruits and vegetables -- foods that support a health-sustaining diet. Without hand work, especially at harvest time, the volume of these foods available from U.S. farms would plunge sharply.
Gary Reeder, a Florida Gulf Coast tomato grower, knows firsthand that native-born area residents will not perform manual farm tasks.
"We have had a few people who have tried to get on a work crew," Reeder said. "But they either don't come back after the first day or they fake an illness or an injury.
"There is plenty of work to do on the farms," he added. "There seems to be nobody out there who will do it."
Florida citrus grower Steve Johnson has hired unemployed area residents through a state employment and training agency. His harvesting firm's office is located adjacent to one of the agency's offices.
"We have tried to hire some of these people," Johnson said. "But they last about four hours at most. They either call a taxi and leave or they just walk off from the job."
Current federal law requires that employers who hire legal immigrant laborers must advertise positions so that U.S. workers can apply for them. Employers must also prove that hiring aliens will not adversely affect the wages or working conditions of domestic workers.
A major initiative undertaken in California in 1998 provided evidence that many able-bodied, unemployed people will not work as farm laborers. A coalition of agricultural organizations, state welfare officials, schools, universities and other participants sought to help recipients obtain jobs with a Welfare to Work program.
Officials involved in a campaign to recruit workers in a 10-county region during the course of many months found that only three people bothered to apply.
The same pattern is apparent today throughout the nation.
Florida growers say that substantially higher wages would not be an answer. A doubling of pay would neither be incentive enough to attract additional native-born workers nor financially viable.
Johnson said the average citrus harvester earns $10 an hour. "If we tried to pay twenty dollars an hour for a harvester, we would soon be out of business," he said. "You would have to add that to the additional expenses for liability insurance and workers' compensation coverage and other associated costs. We could not do it."
Other growers would find themselves in the same financial hole. "There would be no commercial citrus production in Florida," Johnson said. "That would mean the loss of an eight-billion-dollar overall economic sector."
The need for a reliable, stable agricultural workforce has long persuaded farmers and ranchers that current federal immigration law should be reformed. Two components of reform will be vital to its success.
The nation's borders should be made secure. At the same time, law-abiding aliens who seek farm jobs here should be able to do so under a regulated system providing for temporary work permits.
Everyone has a stake in the outcome. The quality and abundance of the U.S. food supply will depend upon it.
G.B. Crawford is director of public relations at the Florida Farm Bureau.