TOPICS > Economy

Farmers in Colorado Struggle with Labor Shortage

August 20, 2007 at 6:20 PM EST
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: On the Pisciotta family farm just outside Pueblo, Colorado, workers are weeding and pruning the onion crop, preparing for the fall harvest. But they aren’t typical farm laborers; they’re inmates of the nearby state prison.

They’re in the fields because the migrant workers that usually do this kind of work are not. The women volunteers are part of a pilot program that five local farmers are trying out. Joe Pisciotta pays the state over nine dollars an hour per worker, which is more than the typical hourly wage for this kind of work. He says, without this program, his onion, watermelon and pumpkin crops would have suffered.

JOE PISCIOTTA, Vegetable Farmer: We need them. We’ve got a lot of money invested in that crop up to harvest time, and if we don’t have the people here to harvest them — we’ve tried local people. We’ve tried unemployment agencies, and they just — people just don’t do that kind of work.

TOM BEARDEN: Pisciotta and others farmers say increased raids by immigration enforcement officials on farms and businesses, coupled with new anti-illegal immigration laws passed in Colorado last year, have depleted the migrant-immigrant workforce on which they depended for decades. Some of those workers were undocumented.

JOE PISCIOTTA: The immigrants, when they get here, they show up. You know, they show up in their car or whatever. And, you know, “We’re here. Let us know when you’ve got work,” and we just haven’t had any come.

TOM BEARDEN: Colorado State University extension director Frank Sobolik has been trying to help farmers adjust to the current labor shortage. He says Colorado farmers are going to take a serious economic hit this year.

FRANK SOBOLIK, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension: What I’m hearing is that many of the farmers have cut back roughly 50 percent of what they would normally produce. And that’s because they’re expecting about 50 percent of the available labor that they’re used to having, and there’s no sense in putting a lot of investment into the land, into the crops, and only getting half of it back.

TOM BEARDEN: Farmers in southeastern Colorado hope the prison labor program can be expanded, but growers on the western side of the state don’t have access to any similar program, growers like the Talbott family. They’ve been raising peaches, apples and grapes in Palisade for more than 90 years. For the first time last year, they faced a labor shortage.

Bruce Talbott says, as rumors of raids spread through the migrant community, fewer people showed up to work. He worried that immigration officials might show up and disrupt his harvest.

BRUCE TALBOTT, Talbott Farms: My worst fear is to lose a percent, significant percent of my people in the middle of harvest. And because our income — 70 percent of my income is generated in six weeks. And if that falls apart, there’s no way to recoup that.

Using federal guest workers

Bruce Talbott
We always saw H2A as an act of desperation and something you would only do as a last-ditch effort to stay in business. We didn't expect to end up there.

TOM BEARDEN: Talbott had no choice but to turn to a federal guest-worker program called H2A. It was first established in 1943 and reformed in 1986 during the last round of immigration reform. Last year, farmers throughout the country used H2A to legally bring in more than 59,000 agricultural workers from outside the United States.

BRUCE TALBOTT: The H2A program is the government visa program to bring in farm workers. And it's a very expensive, bureaucratic and cumbersome process, so we've tried to avoid it as long as we could. We always saw H2A as an act of desperation and something you would only do as a last-ditch effort to stay in business. We didn't expect to end up there.

TOM BEARDEN: Talbott says he pays $2,400 each year just to apply to the Department of Labor and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for a specific number of foreign workers. He had to demonstrate that there was no local labor available by placing month-long advertisements in the local papers. Talbot also paid $300 per worker for visas and security certification.

And for each of his 35 H2A workers, he paid $160 for round-trip transportation to and from their home countries. Farmers must also provide free, federally approved housing, and pay a higher hourly wage than has been traditional, a rate set by each state. This year, it is $8.64 an hour in Colorado; he used to pay just over $7 an hour.

Talbott advertised extensively to try to find local workers.

BRUCE TALBOTT: I had three people respond to our advertisement for the positions. We hired one immediately; she never returned. We hired another one that, when the contract started, we wanted to use that person. He never would answer his phone again. And the last one never would come in for an interview. So we didn't end up getting anybody for our -- 59 positions is what we were advertising for.

Choosing not to plant

Mark Harris
Owner, Grand Valley Hybrids
For any business that's dependent upon labor, as soon as you think you don't have anybody else to get, that you began to be concerned, and we did.

TOM BEARDEN: The Talbotts also had to hire an outside company just to deal with massive amounts of government paperwork required to hire these immigrant laborers.

On the other side of the county, Mark Harris says all of those requirements make it economically impossible for him to participate. He runs Grand Valley Hybrids, which grows and distributes hybrid seed corn in 11 states. He didn't think he could find the 100-plus workers needed to work his 700 acres this year, so he decided to just not plant a crop.

MARK HARRIS, Owner, Grand Valley Hybrids: The situation was going to be turbulent at best and that we began to feel that, this time last year, that if we'd had to have three more people, we're not sure we could have found them. That began to concern us. For any business that's dependent upon labor, as soon as you think you don't have anybody else to get, that you began to be concerned, and we did.

TOM BEARDEN: But not planting was a wrenching decision.

MARK HARRIS: This is the first year since 1958 we grew no seed crop in the Grand Valley near Grand Junction, Colorado. And that's a big deal for people who were kind of basically farmers to begin with. This is what we've known and what we love to do.

Seeking help from Congress

Mike Gilsdorf
Owner, Arapahoe Acres Nursery
There is a huge benefit to that in that we have a legal workforce. We don't have to worry about getting raided or we don't have to worry about our workers having to hide in the shadows.

TOM BEARDEN: He says Congress needs to do something to deal with the growing farm labor shortage.

MARK HARRIS: We're worried that -- I mean, labor's scarce in this country. Whether it's ag labor, whatever it is, labor's scarce on all ends of the economic spectrum. So, yes, we think we're looking at a situation where there's not going to be enough labor to go around.

MIKE GILSDORF, Owner, Arapahoe Acres Nursery: Can you get on the radio and call Danny for me and see where he's at?

TOM BEARDEN: Mike Gilsdorf is feeling the pinch, too. He runs Arapahoe Acres Nursery and Tree Farm in a Denver suburb. Gilsdorf also participates in the H2A program, one that he says has been successful for his operation for almost a decade.

MIKE GILSDORF: There is a huge benefit to that in that we have a legal workforce. We don't have to worry about getting raided or we don't have to worry about our workers having to hide in the shadows because they come up with a legitimate visa, and then every year they return to Mexico in the wintertime.

Finding adequate labor

TOM BEARDEN: Despite those advantages, Gilsdorf has had to turn down business because he still can't get enough people to do the work. And this year, his guest workers arrived two months late after the government misplaced his paperwork. It almost cost him his entire inventory.

MIKE GILSDORF: Well, we had intended to have all of our winter pruning done, our planting done, much of our potting, and all of our tree harvesting done by April 1st, and we didn't have any laborers to do it. So we went to the Colorado Department of Labor in Weld County asking them, can they find us any employees anywhere? We asked them to look in state and out of state. We went to every employment agency we could. We advertised. We got very few workers.

TOM BEARDEN: Gilsdorf has to use a different visa program for his landscaping business, called H2B. It's for non-agricultural workers. He'd like to hire more such workers, but the H2B program is capped at 66,000 people for the entire country. And for the second year in a row, the cap was reached in the spring.

MIKE GILSDORF: So you're at the mercy of the government. And, yes, it does concern me. I lay awake at night wondering, am I going to have labor next year? Am I going to be in business next year?

TOM BEARDEN: With comprehensive immigration reform reportedly dead until after the next election, five more southern Colorado farmers have inquired about signing up for the prison labor program.