Genesee County's farms are facing some of the same difficulties hitting farmers across the nation -- a combination of increased use of E-verify, bureaucratic difficulties with H-2A visas, a dwindling supply of immigrant labor and few U.S. citizens willing to do the work, making it difficult to bring crops in on time.
The confluence of events led to an unusual meeting in Washington, D.C., this past week, organized for Rep. Lois Slaughter (D-Fairport), with participation from Rep. Kathy Hochul and one of Genesee County's farmers, Maureen Torrey.
Torrey, owner of Torrey Farms, said the meeting was the first time high-level representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor, congressional representatives and famers have been able to sit down and discuss immigration issues.
The meeting lasted longer than planned, going two hours.
"Some of the old-timers there were surprised at some of the responses that we got," Torrey said. "We do think maybe there might be some improvement."
Hochul also said the meeting was productive and a unique opportunity to bring together two sides -- the DOL and farmers -- who are historically adversarial.
"There is so much bureaucratic red tape it that it becomes a challenge for the farmers to get the workers they need," Hochul said. "These are people who are playing by the rules and they deserve all the help they can get from the government."
Torrey said the way the H-2A visa program is handled can really jeopardize the ability of farmers to harvest crops at the right time.
For example, she said, apples need to be picked on just the right day and pickers need to be experienced at recognizing the right color and firmness to pick apples at the right time, as well as be able to handle them properly to avoid damaging the fruit.
U.S. citizens, Torrey said, typically don't want the jobs and they lack the experience and training necessary to do the job properly.
Farmers want to be able bring back the same workers year after year to ensure they have the best labor force.
H-2A visas can be held up for a variety of reasons -- mistakes in the multiple pages of paperwork, a barely missed deadline, or a bureaucrat snafu can delay approval past harvest time.
Torrey said that a farmer might submit a batch of applications, have one disapproved and then face getting the entire batch rejected if she appeals just the one disapproval.
Hochul said the situation is just unacceptable.
"Some of the fields can’t be brought to market in time because they don't have enough popele to harvest the crops," Hochul said.
While the H-2A program requires that farmers first seek qualified labor among U.S. citizens, Torrey said few American ever respond to the required job listings.
In states such as Georgia, Florida and Alabama, where state legislatures have mandated use of a program called E-verify to check the legal status of workers, crops have been left to rot in the fields because there's been no workers available.
Torrey said even the DOL admits there are only about 50,000 qualified legal agricultural workers in the United States, but the annual demand is for 900,000 to one million workers.
Torrey said even Darien Lake Theme Park has trouble filling all of its season worker positions with citizen workers. The park hires about 300 foreign students on J-1 visas.
"If Darien Lake needs 300 people on J-1 visas, it just shows you there are not enough people to take these jobs," Torrey said. "And that's fun work compared to working in a field."
Until there is a sustainable guest worker program, Torrey said, farmers are going to struggle to fill positions at harvest time.
A guest worker program has been under negotiation for 16 years, Torrey said, and while it wasn't the topic of the meeting organized by Slaughter, Torrey did attend a meeting on the subject while in D.C.
Meanwhile, according to a recent story in The New York Times, the immigrant labor pool from Mexico is drying up. As economic and educational opportunities improve in Mexico, and the Baby Boom population that fueled the big illegal immigration moves in previous decades is getting older, there are fewer workers willing to take the risk of coming to America for work.
It's all of these forces pushing down the labor pool that made the meetings in Washington so important, Torrey said, and why she's glad they seemed so productive.
"It was really positive," Torrey said. "It is not only going to help Genesee County, but it's going to help farmers all across the country who are having the same issues, so our peers were really happy these meetings took place."