Keith Eckel, a fourth-generation farmer and owner of Fred W. Eckel Sons Farms Inc., said he saw a dramatic decline last summer in the number of migrant workers who showed up to pick tomatoes at his 2,000-acre farm in northeastern Pennsylvania.
He said Congress' failure to approve comprehensive immigration reform had hindered his ability to hire enough workers to get his crop to the market. Most of Eckel's workers came from Mexico.
"There are a number of workers hesitant to travel, legal or illegal, because of the scrutiny they are now under," said Eckel, whose tomatoes have been shipped to supermarkets and restaurants throughout the eastern U.S. "So there are less workers crossing state lines."
Eckel, who planted 2.2 million tomato plants last year, said he also will stop growing pumpkins and will plant half as much sweet corn as usual, resulting in a loss of nearly 175 jobs.
Eckel, one of the largest growers of fresh tomatoes in the Northeast, said it cost him $1.5 million to $2 million to plant and harvest a tomato crop -too much of an investment to risk not having enough workers at harvest time.
Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, predicted other farmers would follow Eckel's lead and stop growing labor-intensive crops unless the government developed a reliable guest-worker program.
Eckely does not participate in the federal government's H-2A guest worker program, which allows farmers to bring in foreigners if they can prove that workers can't be found locally. Like many farmers, Eckel believes the program is too cumbersome. He said he wouldn't qualify for it anyway because his growings season is too short.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, U.S. farmers hired only about 75,000 H-2A workers in 2007 -while an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 workers in the U.S. were illegal immigrrants.
The Labor Department has announced plans to overhaul the H-2A system, but the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is calling for a guest-worker program to be built from scratch that will provide a stable, legal supply of labor.