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Immigrant Workers Help Keep an Oregon Family Nursery in Business

For the past 11 years, Angela Bailey has run a fourth generation nursery that she inherited from her family. Her primary business challenge is finding enough immigrant employees to work the farm. Bailey depends upon these workers; not once has an American applied for a job.

When someone wants a job at Angela Bailey’s specialty tree nursery, they can simply walk down her driveway and ask if she is hiring. At least that’s how it used to work back when Bailey’s mother still ran Verna Jean Nursery in Gresham, Oregon. In those days, American high school students were a frequent sight on the farm. Now, local students prefer to work elsewhere. No older U.S. citizens apply for her jobs either. Since Bailey took over the farm 11 years ago, she says, “I’ve never had an American ask for work on my nursery.”

That means Bailey often must rely on immigrants to do the arduous work at her business, which involves planting and caring for specialty trees. Many of them have years of experience in the field, working for contract crews skilled in grafting, pruning, digging, and tying trees. Verna Jean Nursery depends on foreign-born workers, Bailey says, but “the pool of workers skilled enough to do this job is too small. I’m competing with construction and roofing companies for immigrant contract workers.” Statewide, immigrants make up 55.6 percent of the type of rank-and-file agriculture worker that frequently takes on such nursery jobs. But such laborers are increasingly in short supply, and our immigration system doesn’t give nursery owners like Bailey any real avenues to recruit them. The government currently has an H-2A visa, which is designed to bring in temporary, seasonal workers to help in agriculture jobs. However, Bailey works in a niche sector of Oregon’s $4.1 billion agricultural industry. The H-2A program is rarely useable for businesses like nurseries or dairy farms, which need workers year-round.

The pool of workers skilled enough to do this job is too small. I’m competing with construction and roofing companies for immigrant contract workers.

The shortage of immigrant workers has hurt Bailey in recent years—particularly during periods when her business has boomed. This year Bailey has sold more specialty tree nursery stock—mostly Japanese maple varieties—than in any of the previous 11 years. But her inability to get orders out quickly has seriously stalled her business’ momentum. “It’s a sad situation when you can’t fulfill orders because you don’t have the labor you need to do so,” she says. “The only limitation for us this year has been labor, pure and simple.” Stressing her interconnectedness with other local businesses, she explains the larger consequences of her labor shortage. “Our success is tied to the success of real estate developers,” she says, explaining that developers need trees and grass to make properties more attractive to potential buyers. A slowdown in her business also affects shipping companies and equipment suppliers that work closely with her firm. All these businesses rely on each other to prosper.

Bailey’s daily struggle to find enough workers made her realize how important it will be for Congress to reform our immigration system—and allow businesses like hers to function more effectively. “The system is broken; it doesn’t work,” says Bailey, who thinks we need an effective guest worker program that would supply farms and nurseries with workers year-round. She adds, “we need reform on the national level.” The longer the immigration system remains unfixed, the more Bailey worries that even the small number of workers she has today may become discouraged by our difficult system. “One of our workers has been with us for almost eight years, and he’s now considering going back home to Mexico permanently,” Bailey says. “It would be incredibly challenging for us to replace him.”

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