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Farmers in Colorado Struggle with Labor Shortage

In the wake of repeated crackdowns on illegal workers, some farmers in Colorado are struggling to bring in their crops with fewer available migrant workers. The NewsHour reports on how the problem is affecting individual farmers and the American economy.

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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.

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