I am a fruit grower/marketer in western New York. My husband and I own and operate 250 acres–approximately 40,000 trees in production. Every individual piece of fruit that we and the thousands of other fruit growers need to have harvested must be handpicked. They must be handpicked by people with gentle and strong hands who want to work. The work is repetitive and often tedious. Mother Nature has no concern about weather conditions. American shopper’s demands are for nothing less than perfect fruit. While the US Department of Labor considers farm work to be “unskilled”, we farmers know that it takes not only skill but stamina, good health, determination to see a crop through, and a desire to work outside in various conditions.
In the 1940’s there began a cooperative effort between the United States and Mexico to supply a healthy migrating workforce following the maturity of crops northward from the southern states. Migrant health clinics emerged to insure access to health care as they traveled up and down the work streams. Living near the Canadian border and Niagara Falls, we are often the end of the line for that workforce in any given year. Once we finish apple harvest we no longer need these people until the following year.
There had been agreements and legalization of this flow of Hispanics who would then head back south after the USA no longer needed their skills and availability. They took American dollars back home to their villages. It was a win-win for agriculture and for these Hispanic families. Now this entire sensible agreement is in jeopardy. Congress has literally sat on an Ag-Jobs bill for 10 years now, unable to agree on its necessity. Without a legal, migrating workforce in this country we specialty crop growers are in peril, dependent on the whims of well fed and ignorant politicians.
The horrors which now take place at the borders due to drug and people trafficking have become the focus of attention. We have a border war which has claimed thousands of good hard working people. We farmers virtually find no American on welfare wanting to do these jobs. Oh, maybe for a day, but once they find out that it actually involves work and they are expected to work for money, they prefer our welfare system and do not return. The dilemma is serious and forces many good but undocumented workers to hide–to become fugitives in our country with ICE and Border Patrol squads persistently rounding them up.
Hispanic immigrants come to this country to work, to contribute to our economy, to “live the American work-ethic dream”, not to deal drugs, not to traffic in other Mexicans, not to be a part of our welfare system. We growers need workers such as these to keep our dreams alive as well.
Karen Watt is co-owner of Watt Farms in Albion, NY