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By Mike Strathdee

As Printed in The Marketplace – March/April 2018

Restricting migrant workers to save jobs could have the opposite effect, pushing agri-food work out of North America to other countries.

Migrant labor is vital in the fruit and vegetable industry, says Marianne Unruh, a MEDA board member who operates Fresh Solutions, which does produce inspections in California, Arizona, Texas and Michigan. “Without migrant labor, the industry wouldn’t function at all,” she said.

Sandy Stauffer, a Dairy Farmers of America director, agrees. “It would devastate the industry if we couldn’t have them (migrants),” he said.

“Anywhere they need to hire labor, there is a high percentage of Hispanics in the dairy farms, milking cows.”

Stauffer’s New York State operations, now run by his sons, are milking 3,000 cows, largely with local help. Their operation employs only one Mexican worker.

That is an exception. Since the late 1990s, as farms got larger, dependence on migrant labor has soared, he said. “People (who live in the US) in general don’t want to milk cows. The Hispanics do, and they want all the hours they can get.”

Others say golf courses, framing crews for houses, drywalling and hand laying of stone walls, jobs that involve hard work and heat, are often dependent on migrant labor. By one estimate, the migrant worker pool in the Lancaster County, Pa. area dropped by 30 per cent last year.

During harvest season in California, workers start their day at 5:30 a.m. and work in 104-degree heat. “Most people don’t want to do it,” Unruh said.

Automation may eventually ease the problem. The strawberry sector is working on robots to pick that low-lying fruit, efforts that may take 15 years to mature.

In Europe some stone fruit picking is already mechanized. Unruh thinks the raisin industry and fruit pruning tasks will become mechanized sooner rather than later.

Ultimately, however, she fears labor shortages will force more of the ag sector offshore. ◆