Colorado Farm Show speaker: U.S. natives won’t or can’t do farm work | TheFencePost.com

Colorado Farm Show speaker: U.S. natives won’t or can’t do farm work

Eric Brown
Greeley, Colo.

No one needed to persuade Joe Petrocco on Tuesday that reform is needed when it comes to labor in agriculture.

That’s old news to him.

After making the move a couple of years ago to hire local people instead of migrant workers, Petrocco Farms Inc. near Brighton experienced turnover of about 10 employees per week, Petrocco said. The farm struggled to keep workers in the labor-intensive vegetable fields and was unable to harvest about 10 percent of its crops – about a $150,000 loss for the farm, Petrocco said.

“Local workers just won’t do the work,” Petrocco told those who attended the Farm Labor Panel at the Events Center in Island Grove Regional Park in Greeley during the opening day of the 2012 Colorado Farm Show. Others who were a part of the panel included Frank Gasperini Jr., executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, and Olga Ruiz and Thomas Gonzales of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Gasperini stressed that the Petroccos aren’t alone in struggling to find quality workers. He said there is an 8 to 12 percent labor shortage in the agriculture industry across the nation, with the problem worse in states that have tightened their rules on illegal workers – such as Alabama and Georgia, where billions of dollars were lost in unharvested crops last year.

Gasperini said it will be tough for any solution from the federal government to be reached during an election year.

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He said poor policies are pushing food production out of the U.S.

During Tuesday’s panel, farmers in the audience expressed their concerns regarding the lack of a program that helps provide the needed workers for labor-intensive vegetable harvesting or dairy operations.

Petrocco explained to the crowd that his family stepped away from using the H-2A Visa program – the only federal program that allows a foreign national entry into the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work – because it’s too expensive with too many requirements. He noted that farmers must find housing for the migrant workers, in addition to paying for their travel and other expenses.

Petrocco estimated that it costs $3,000 up front just to bring a migrant worker to his family’s farm through the H-2A program.

With the economy in a slump, Petrocco said his family made the decision a couple of years ago to do away with the program and hire local workers, figuring there were many people close to home looking for work.

He said they received hundreds of applications but discovered most of the them were just applying for jobs as part of requirements to keep their unemployment benefits, and those who actually showed up couldn’t handle the work.

“They would only last a week or two, if that,” said Petrocco, who noted that his family’s farm has had only one American worker last through a full year, out of hundreds who have worked on the farm.

“There’s a lot of bending over, and it works muscles many people aren’t used to working … and most people from around here just won’t or can’t do the work,” he said.

Gasperini told the crowd Tuesday that there are a handful of revisions aimed at improving the H-2A program, but none are nearly as far-reaching as needed to fix the problem, especially when it comes to dairy farmers, who need full-time workers, not seasonal labor.