Manatee farms having hard time finding, keeping workers

srocco@bradenton.comOctober 7, 2013 

MANATEE -- Farmers in Manatee County are beginning to feel the same challenge that has been plaguing the West Coast, particularly California: They are having a tough time finding workers to pick crops.

With the peak harvest season about a month away here, local farmers are downsizing their operations to prevent losses that could range from 10 percent to 25 percent.

Most farms in Florida run on a nine-month schedule, and migrant workers don't return after the season is up. They're enticed by better pay, easier work elsewhere or they go back to their home countries.

The shortage and competition for workers means labor expenses have climbed, harvests are delayed and fewer fruits and vegetables are picked.

Experts say, however, the shortage is not expected to affect consumer prices.

"It's been an issue to find some qualified labor," said Billy Heller, chief operating officer for Pacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto. "It's been tight all summer here, it's tight in Georgia, where we are now, and it's tight in California."

The shortage -- driven by a struggling U.S. economy, more jobs in Mexico and bigger hurdles to illegal border crossings -- caused farmers to scale back production to avoid waste and revenue loss.

"We're certainly not going to put plants in the ground that we can't take care of," Heller said. "We change the way we plant so we can have the best chance to have the folks that

we need."

At more than $10,000 an acre, for example, the tomato industry is costly.

"The last thing any of us want to do as operators is leave 20 percent of a crop in the fields. That has happened," said Tony DiMare, president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, a lobbying group. He is also vice president of DiMare Co., a family owned produce business with farms and packing plants in California and Florida, including Myakka City.

In some cases, farmers give workers extra pay or other incentive to stay. Felicia Tappan, who sold her blueberry farm in Duette last year, said she gave one of her workers a percentage of the crop.

"You depend on a few regulars that ... go out there and get the word out," Tappan said.

In Florida, blueberries come in by April 1. Then comes six weeks of hard picking. Harvest ends by mid-May, and workers move onto other crops as they come in.

"They migrate along the Eastern seaboard," Tappan said.

Farmers say immigration reform, which would legalize their work force and create a guest worker program to legally bring farm workers in from other countries, could solve the shortage. But immigration reform has stalled in Congress.

"At this point in time, Congress doesn't care. They're not making an effort. They're playing politics instead of worrying about how they put food on peoples' tables," Heller said.

For years, farmers throughout the United States had access to an abundant labor force streaming in from Mexico. As the U.S. economy plunged into a recession and Mexico's economy improved, some seasonal migrant workers chose to remain home.

"The reality of the situation is we can't get American workers even with the ... unemployment that we've had," DiMare said. "We don't have people standing at our doorsteps looking to pick tomatoes or peppers. Americans are not going to do this work."

DiMare and other producers are looking at harvesting mechanically to reduce the amount of labor needed.

"This is a problem I see getting a little worse," he said. "I don't see it getting better in the future."

-- Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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