Maureen Torrey, an 11th-generation farmer in the rural town of Elba, N.Y., has been losing sleep. Just as rows of cabbage and winter squash stand ready for harvest on her 11,000 acre farm, she can’t find enough workers to bring in the crops. She needs about 350 workers and is 70 short of that number. “I wake up at 3:30 in the morning and my mind doesn’t shut off,” she says.
The problem, she says, is fear. Torrey Farms, a 14-crop vegetable farm located an hour east of Buffalo, has been raided twice since last October, when she says immigration officials kicked in the doors of workers’ housing and apprehended 34. In August, officials arrested seven workers and 14 more fled the area. Amid continued talk of a federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants, she’s afraid still more of her workforce will flee to less hostile terrain. With a population of about 9,000, the town of Elba, “Onion Capital of the World” to locals, may not have the manpower to replace them.
But while the new rule has yet to take effect, its impact is already being felt by farmers like Torrey. An estimated three-quarters of agricultural workers in the U.S. are undocumented, and growers are starting to feel the paralyzing effects of losing their workforce. They say that unless the government implements workable reforms, the future of the U.S. as a food-producing nation is in jeopardy.
Import workers, or import food
Agriculture does not play the role it once did in the U.S. economy, of course. Though the amount of farmland used has remained fairly steady over the past century, changes to the structure of farms and improvements in productivity have cut the number of people involved dramatically. In 1900, for example, 41% of the U.S. population was employed in agriculture, while that number now stands at less than 2%. Farmers hire workers for about 3 million agricultural jobs each year, but only one-quarter of that workforce is legally authorized. Agriculture also makes up a lower share of the U.S. gross domestic product than ever, accounting for less than 1%.
Still, farm advocates say that immigrant workers are allowing U.S. farmers to compete in a fierce global marketplace, and that losing the workforce means losing domestic sources of food. “The choice is simple: Do we want to import workers or import food?” says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.
The chief issue in lost U.S. production, say Holt and others, is security. “What’s at stake here is not prices, but food safety,” he says. Torrey and other farmers agree. “We need to wake up to the realities of food safety and security issues,” says Torrey. “A country not in control of its food supply is a weak nation.”