Editorial: Immigrant Farmworkers Need Protection to Ensure Successful Harvest

The Recorder, April 27, 2017

Immigrant farmworkers need protection to ensure a successful harvest in the Pioneer Valley and across the country. That was the message delivered by some 75 farmers, activists and legislators who gathered at a Hadley farm earlier this month to warn about the impact of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies on agriculture.

Local farmers say their workers — whether or not they are legally in the United States — are fearful because of the threat of deportation. That fear also is felt by farmers who say that an abrupt loss of laborers would leave crops rotting in the fields, threatening the livelihood of their farms.

“The workers are terrified,” says Michael Docter, who owns Winter Moon Roots Farm in Hadley and helped organize the April 8 meeting. “They’re worried about driving between home and work, getting pulled over and not seeing their kids again at the end of the day. As far as farmers go, we’re almost as terrified.

“We depend on them to run our farms and bring our crops in. There’s not anybody else who can, or who will, do it. These guys know our operations inside out — they’re highly skilled and highly knowledgeable.”

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 72 percent of the nation’s farmworkers are immigrants. Estimates vary as to how many are in the country without legal documentation. According to the labor department, that number has been near 50 percent since 2001. The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., offers a higher estimate of about 60 percent.

Crops in the United States traditionally have been harvested by foreign-born farmworkers, starting with Europeans who were indentured servants in the 1600s and continuing with African slaves into the 19th century. By the end of the 1800s, most farmworkers were from Asia. During both world wars, temporary Mexican workers increased. Most farmworkers today are from Mexico and Central America.

States which already adopted measures similar to Trump’s harsh immigration policies are a model for what could happen in the Pioneer Valley. Farmworkers fearing deportation fled tomato fields in Alabama in 2011 when a strict immigration law was enacted. At the time, Jerry Spencer was CEO of Grow Alabama, a marketing organization for farmers that he founded. He recruited more than 50 American citizens to replace the immigrant laborers, and says only one lasted as long as two weeks. Spencer, who is now retired, explains that Americans were not physically or mentally prepared to work the long hours, and typically quit when faced with the many acres of unpicked tomato plants. Based on that experience, Spencer says he fears the impact nationally of Trump’s policies.

That fear is echoed in the valley. Wally Czajkowski, owner of the Plainville Farm which hosted this month’s gathering, said if the Trump administration pursues the “deportations they’re talking about, there won’t be a sufficient labor force to go around. Not even close.”

The federal government’s H-2A program allows farmers to hire laborers from other countries on temporary permits for agricultural jobs lasting 10 months or less — but only after showing that they are unable to find U.S. citizens to do the work. There were 459 jobs certified in Massachusetts under the program in 2015. Many local farmers say they do not use H-2A because it is too restrictive.

Farmers told lawmakers that the federal government instead needs a clear policy that allows immigrant farm laborers to obtain legal work authorization. “There’s going to have to be a pathway to legality for folks,” Czajkowski says. “A lot of these folks haven’t come into the country the last couple of months. They’ve been living here 10, 15, 20 years. I’ve watched their kids grow up.

“Right now, the stars might just be aligned to get things done. They’re not any different from you and me. All they want to do is raise their families. It’s just like when our grandparents came over. This has been going on since the beginning of this country. I don’t see why it’s such a big deal now.”

We expect Congressman James McGovern of Worcester, a member of the House Agriculture Committee who attended this month’s meeting in Hadley, to be among the leaders in Congress fighting to protect the long history of immigrant farmworkers in America from erosion caused by Trump’s wrong-headed policies.