Farm­ers strug­gling with im­mi­grant la­bor short­age

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Business - BY KATIE PARK

At Phillips Mush­room Farms in Ken­nett Square, busi­ness is boom­ing, and the own­ers would like to ex­pand. But they can’t.

There aren’t enough har­vest work­ers, the peo­ple who rise be­fore dawn to work in dark grow houses rapidly cut­ting mush­rooms loose from their beds.

“There’s no one around,” said Jim An­gelucci, the Penn­syl­va­nia farm’s gen­eral man­ager. “And it’s not just the mush­room in­dus­try. Ev­ery­one is strug­gling for work­ers.”

Amid re­newed fed­eral em­pha­sis on im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment, farm­ers are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a short­age of la­bor. It’s a prob­lem for vir­tu­ally all en­ter­prises that rely on dif­fi­cult man­ual work, but it’s es­pe­cially pro­nounced in agri­cul­ture, where farm­ers rely largely on im­mi­grants – some of them un­doc­u­mented.

In Penn­syl­va­nia, the short­age of work­ers has dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected farm­ers – mush­room, dairy and oth­ers.

In New Jersey, Dory Dickson, di­rec­tor of the Med­ford-based vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tion Mi­grant Worker Outreach, said lo­cal farms have sub­stan­tially fewer work­ers this year than in pre­vi­ous years.

Farm­ing and mush­room har­vest­ing is a skill, “and some peo­ple just don’t have it,” said Me­gan Klotzbach, reg­u­la­tory man­ager at Mother Earth Or­ganic Mush­rooms in Lan­den­berg, Ch­ester County. Be­yond that, she said, fear of de­por­ta­tion has sent some un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants – long a sta­ple of farm work – back to their home­lands.

“What we re­ally need,” she said, “is some im­mi­gra­tion re­form.”

Mean­while, some farm­ers des­per­ate for la­bor have be­gun to turn to places they may not have once con­sid­ered, such as in­mate work-re­lease pro­grams, or­ga­ni­za­tions that help the visu­ally im­paired find em­ploy­ment and oth­ers that help vet­er­ans find work. While the pro­grams have met with mixed suc­cess, over­all they aren’t “mov­ing the nee­dle,” Klotzbach said.

The job is a “hard sell,” said Stephanie Chap­man, di­rec­tor of hu­man re­source man­age­ment at Phillips Mush­room Farms. Full-time po­si­tions re­quire work­ers to pick six days a week, in­clud­ing hol­i­days. Days start early and the work can be dif­fi­cult, as work­ers have to bend be­tween nar­row, dimly-lit wooden mush­room beds, knife in hand, and del­i­cately cut thou­sands of mush­rooms piece by piece. Har­vesters are re­warded with a bonus – an amount Chap­man de­clined to dis­close – for pick­ing ex­tra quickly.

“One of the big­gest prob­lems in agri­cul­ture and dairy is that Amer­i­can cit­i­zens no longer want to work like that,” said Chris­tian Landis, owner of Worth the Wait Farm, a dairy op­er­a­tion in Stevens, Lan­caster County. “And im­mi­grants – il­le­gal or le­gal – are the only ones who are will­ing to step up to the plate to serve th­ese po­si­tions.”

The lack of work­ers is so pro­nounced that some mush­room farms, like Phillips’, can’t cleanly pick their last har­vest cy­cle.

Dairy farm­ers, mired in a strug­gling milk mar­ket, have seen even thin­ner profit mar­gins as they push to find work­ers.

“It’s get­ting re­ally bad,” said Caro­line No­vak, deputy di­rec­tor of the Pro­fes­sional Dairy Man­agers of Penn­syl­va­nia, a trade as­so­ci­a­tion in Har­ris­burg. “Quite hon­estly, they’re dirty jobs. They pay far above min­i­mum wage, but they are dirty jobs. You’re be­hind cows. You’re go­ing in and out of rain, snow, sleet and hail.”

The la­bor shrink­age, com­bined with fall­ing milk prices, she said, has forced some dairy farm­ers to down­size and oth­ers to post­pone plans to up­grade to ro­botic milk­ing ma­chin­ery.

Mush­room farms are man­ag­ing to stay afloat, al­though some say op­er­a­tions aren’t what they once were.

“We just used to al­ways have peo­ple com­ing in, and we’re just not see­ing that in the last five years,” said Klotzbach. “They (work­ers) are not feel­ing happy with the coun­try, or they’re not feel­ing they want to be here. A lot of them are just go­ing home, whether that be Mex­ico or some­where else, and they don’t know if they’re com­ing back or not.”

Still, mush­room farms like Phillips’ have man­aged to re­tain some work­ers for decades, such as J. Trinidad Perez, 54, a 32year em­ployee who said he legally im­mi­grated from Gua­na­ju­ato, Mex­ico, in 1985 and now works as a har­vest­ing su­per­vi­sor. Phillips cred­its re­ten­tion to on-site hous­ing, re­tire­ment plans, va­ca­tion days and med­i­cal cov­er­age they’ve in­vested in to re­main at­trac­tive to prospec­tive em­ploy­ees who have their choice of mush­room farms to work at in south­ern Ch­ester County.

But even so, the next gen­er­a­tion of la­bor is far from guar­an­teed when mush­room work­ers’ chil­dren, many of whom were born and raised in the U.S., want to work in an­other in­dus­try, Klotzbach said.

As it stands, cur­rent farm la­bor­ers are shoul­der­ing more re­spon­si­bil­ity as fewer em­ploy­ees are avail­able, said Kath­leen Sex­smith, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ru­ral so­ci­ol­ogy at Penn State-Univer­sity Park who in­ter­viewed 60 Ch­ester County mush­room farm la­bor­ers from Latin Amer­ica as part of her year­long re­search into the in­dus­try’s la­bor short­age. “Their work­day gets very long,” she said.

Her re­search found that work­ers would of­ten start their day at 5 a.m. and not fin­ish un­til 5 p.m., though they were to clock out at 1 or 2 p.m.

It’s a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion for dairy work­ers, who work “un­til the job’s done,” said Landis, the dairy farmer.

“The Amer­i­can pub­lic as a whole does not want to work th­ese hours any­more,” he said. “And quite frankly, if the im­mi­grant la­bor force was not there, there would be a ma­jor void in the la­bor force of the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try across all sec­tors.”

MICHAEL BRYANT The Philadel­phia Inquirer

Miguel Gutier­rez, a worker at Phillips Mush­room Farms in Ken­nett Square, Pa., har­vests white but­ton mush­rooms.

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