By Clare Leschin-Hoar, TakePart
Gary Larsen had high expectations for the asparagus crop he planted on his farm in Washington state earlier this year. He was eager to try new varieties from Canada and Germany, and in late April told the Tri City Herald that he hoped to harvest a whopping 16,000 pounds per acre of the tender spears. After all, growing conditions had been just right for a robust harvest. But less than a week later, Larsen was in the news again — this time for abandoning 100 acres of that very same asparagus crop.
Why? For the first time since 1984, Larsen couldn’t find enough skilled workers to bring the crop in from the field. Harvesting asparagus is back-breaking work. The spears need to be plucked at their peak, and cut close to the dirt, which means bending every two to three feet. They’re then carefully placed in boxes, which workers have to lug with them through the field.
Hector Lopez, the foreman at Larsen Farms, told the Herald that workers were in the fields ten to 12 hours a day instead of the regular five to six hours. For a harvest that goes seven days a week for nearly 10 weeks, the labor shortage is sharply felt.
While some point to low wages as the culprit, growers in other parts of the country are echoing similar concerns over farm labor shortages.
Alabama growers say they’re planting less produce after the state began cracking down on illegal immigration. Instead of growing diverse crops like fruits or vegetables, some are turning to industrial crops that require less labor, like cotton or peanuts.
“It’s unclear how many farmers are changing their planting patterns this year because of the law and whether consumers might see food shortages on the produce aisle at supermarkets,” reports the Associated Press.
In California’s Central Coast, vegetable grower Tom Ikeda is in full harvest mode, but says he’s having difficulty filling harvest crews. Nearby farmers are in the same predicament, and the California Farm Bureau Federation has heard similar complaints echoing throughout the state.
Immigration battles in states like Georgia, Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah have had the unintended consequence of significantly impacting farm labor. And, as noted in the recent Pew Hispanic Center report, the migration flow from Mexico to the U.S. has stopped, and may have reversed.
Dick Minor, partner at Minor Produce, a family-owned farm, and president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, told NPR recently that lawmakers in Georgia aren’t listening.
“I think they had a political agenda, they were going to accomplish it, and they didn’t really think about the impacts on the economy of our state — especially on the agricultural industry,” he told NPR. “But it’s not just agriculture. It’s all the service industries: construction, hospitality. You know, a lot of this labor is being used every day here in the state and all across the country.”
Photo Credit: wworks