‘We’d better have a good door:’ Colorado farmers depend on immigrants to feed the country
December 6, 2016
Although many immigrant farm workers are documented, the agriculture industry is one of the prime sectors employing unauthorized aliens. Nationwide, about 17 percent of those working agriculture are undocumented immigrants, according to Pew Research Center data.
Crop production is especially hard to find labor for, local farmers and national experts say. Nationwide, the proportion of undocumented is even higher in crop production portion of the ag industry. Across the country, about half those workers are undocmented, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As President-elect Donald Trump vows to crack down on immigration in an attempt to save jobs for Americans, some Colorado farmers are left wondering who will man the fields.
"The idea that many other Americans will do the kind of work that a (local farmer) will need to have done — it's a dream," said Dave Eckhart, Colorado Corn President. "It's a myth. They won't do it."
Because many fruits and vegetables are too tender for mechanical harvest, operations often depend on manual labor. In the past, families and young people worked in the fields, but that's becoming increasingly less common, farmers say.
The debate about immigration and its impact on the economy features a widely prominent argument: They're taking our jobs. But when it comes to farming, Eckhart said, that isn't true.
“It’s fine to build a wall, but we’d better have a good door.”
"We have had absolutely a decline in available workers over the last several years, and it's to the point now that it's difficult to raise a crop," Eckhart said.
The laborers who used to tend the fields have gone into other industries. Eckhart thinks many of Weld County's potential help went into the energy industry.
"With the oil and gas boom, there was a lot of employment that became available to folks other than having to work in the fields," he said. "When oil and gas declined, those workers either chose not to or didn't need to come back and work in the field."
The work can be grueling. Workers spend all day in blistering summer heat with the Colorado sun beating down on them.
When Americans can find pay doing something else, they will, Eckhart said.
His farm and many others depend on seasonal migrant workers. His employees do what they can to ensure his workers are documented, he said. Even then, it can be hard on the workers.
"I know there's a fear out there," he said. "This fear has been out there for quite some time. 'When is immigration services going to come to the field?' I'm sure there's some apprehension, whether they're legal or not."
Nationwide, immigrants with green cards and other temporary arrangements are calling various legal assistance organizations, wondering whether they will continue to be allowed in the country, the Associated Press reported. During the campaign, Trump pledged to deport the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally and to build a border wall. Trump's campaign website says these policies are meant to prioritize jobs, wages and security of the American people.
"It's fine to build a wall, but we'd better have a good door," said Robert Sakata, an onion and sweet corn farmer who serves as president of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
Sakata and other farmers have pushed for programs that allow migrant field hands to get temporary visas.
"For fruit and vegetables, we're so seasonal," he said. "We depend on a seasonal work force."
The country already has a similar program, but it's difficult for local farmers to use.
"Right now, that current program is really bureaucratic," he said. "That system has created a problem for some of the applicants."
For example, if a farmer hires someone from another country, that worker can't go off and work on another farm during the stint. That inflexibility can't work, Sakata said. If a farmer's cabbage gets hailed on, there's not going to be any more work. Then the visitor is stranded with no income.
It's difficult for farmers to get through the paperwork, documentation and red tape in time for seasons to start and wrap up.
"With farming, timing is everything," he said.
The administration needs to work to improve programs like these, farmers say. The country and its food source depends on it.
"I think that if we're talking about national security, how we're feeding the people of the U.S. should be an important part of that discussion," Sakata said. "That's critical." ❖