MONTPELIER, Vt. — (AP) Even during the recession, foreign workers harvested vegetables, milked cows and picked apples on many U.S. farms, doing work that farmers say Americans don't want to do.
Most Americans shy away from jobs such as hand-picking tomatoes or cutting cabbage because the work is seasonal, physically tough, out in the elements and often in remote areas, farmers say. To get the jobs done, many farmers hire foreign workers, including some who are illegal, and they say a crackdown on illegal immigration combined with changes to a visa program for temporary workers could make it even harder for them to find reliable employees.
Farmers want Congress to pass an "AgJobs" bill that would enable those who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days in the previous two years to get some kind of legal status. They also say the visa program for temporary workers needs to be simplified. Without those changes, some farmers say they may have to cut back production because of a shortage of reliable labor.
Jim Bittner, who relies largely on migrant workers originally from Mexico, said he cut down a quarter of his cherry and peach trees at Singer Farms in Appleton, N.Y., in recent years because of competition from cheap fruit imports and a lack of workers to hand-pick the fruit.
"We can find tractor drivers, people who apply pesticide and truck drivers, but we can't find people to do the harvest," Bittner said.
California's Imperial Valley used to be a big asparagus producer, but the area planted with asparagus dropped from 786 acres in 2006 to 373 acres in 2008 partly because farms couldn't get enough workers to cut, sort and pack the vegetable — all of which must be done by hand, said Ayron Moiola, the executive director of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.
"Asparagus in the Imperial Valley is an indicator as to what happens with crops that are labor intensive and what happens when labor becomes unfeasible economically and also just hard to find," she said.
The recession stemmed a flow of workers from farms to construction and other jobs. In 2006, before the economy collapsed, Washington state and its apple growers tried to recruit pickers to fill 1,700 jobs. They set up orientation and training sessions in six towns in eastern Washington and advertised them in newspapers and on the radio, but only 40 people showed up, and just 10 applied for jobs and were hired.
Washington officials say they seem to have enough workers this year, but as the job market slowly recovers, no one expects farmers' hiring to get easier.
"Nobody who is informed on this issue seriously contends that somehow some great societal shift is going to cause a whole bunch of Americans to go back into these jobs," said Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations with the American Nursery and Landscape Association and co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.
More than half of the crop workers hired in the U.S. between 2005 and 2007 were in the country illegally, according to the federal government's National Agricultural Worker Survey.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tougher immigration laws, thinks the problem is that farmers have become addicted to cheap, foreign labor and haven't been forced to raise wages to attract other workers or consider mechanization.
"No one has really thought about how to change the equation to try to break the cycle of what the growers say is need and what some economists say is really more want," she said.
Jake Guest employs about 20 local workers at his organic vegetable farm in Vermont, but he still relies on two Jamaican farmworkers to spend hours picking strawberries and weeding.
"The problem is that the kind of work that these guy do, people don't want to do it," he said.
But changes to the H2-A program have made it more complicated and costly to legally hire temporary workers, Guest said. The program can't be used to fill jobs that are considered year-round, such as milking on dairy farms.
In February, the U.S. Labor Department issued regulations to increase wages and job safety protections for temporary farm workers, reversing Bush-era changes that farm worker advocates said promoted cheap labor and undercut domestic hiring. The changes also require growers to do more to try to fill the jobs with American workers.
For Guest, it means he must advertise the jobs in Vermont, two neighboring states and either Florida or Texas, pay $1,000 for the Jamaicans' transportation to his Norwich farm, pay $120 in government fees for each and provide housing. The law requires Guest to pay the Jamaicans $10 an hour, and he can't pay domestic workers doing the same job less.
It's worth it to have skilled workers, he said.
"If you've got a sink drain that doesn't work, you don't hire a college student to fix it," Guest said. "You don't hire a painter. If you've got strawberries to pick, you hire a professional picker."