It was early January and Jim Angelucci had a problem. His Oxford, Pennsylvania, farm had mushrooms ready to harvest, but not enough workers. “The worst thing for a grower is to go to work at 4 o’clock in the morning and not have anyone there,” says Angelucci, the general manager of Phillips Mushroom Farm. “That really hits you in the gut.”
Many of the farm’s foreign workers had gone home for the holidays and hadn’t returned, he explains. As a result, nearly a quarter of the farm’s crop ended up at the landfill. “Labor is our biggest Achilles heel,” says Angelucci. “I’ve always said: Without our workers, we’re nothing; we’re out of business.”
The labor shortage plaguing Pennsylvania mushroom growers is only one piece in a larger, national, problem. The number of new immigrants coming to the United States to work in agriculture has dropped by 75 percent in recent years, leading to labor shortages that have cost U.S. farms an estimated $3.1 billion a year in fruit and vegetable sales.
Without our workers, we’re nothing; we’re out of business.”
Unless deeper systemic issues are addressed, Angelucci says, more U.S.-grown food will go to waste. When he first started suffering labor shortages, he was able to raise pay to attract more workers. But by summer of 2017, five of six Phillips’ farms were short several harvesters — a total shortage of 25 workers — because U.S.-born workers show little to no interest in farm labor jobs. “While there’s a limit to what we can pay to harvest the crop, the rate of pay doesn’t matter any longer, there is just no one out there to hire,” he says.
And it’s not as if foreign guest workers are legally available to him. Mushroom and dairy farms need workers year-round, and the only guest-worker program for agricultural employers is the H-2A visa, which is for seasonal workers only. “We need major changes in the guest-worker program. Workers need to be available year-round,” he says.
The government should also create a pathway for critical agricultural workers to legally live and work in the United States, he says. “The people who have been here and worked hard need to have a way to remain here and support their families, whether citizenship is a part of that or not,” he says.
It’s not only American farms that need a dependable labor supply, he says; national security is at stake. “We have the cheapest and safest food supply of any place in the world, and I think that is in serious jeopardy if our immigration laws don’t change,” he says. If food is imported, it likely won’t be held to U.S. health and safety standards. “I have no problem with getting rid of criminals, but there are a lot of good, hardworking people harvesting our crops. They are some of the most loyal and family-oriented people that I’ve ever met.”
They are also people that should be afforded the same opportunities granted to his own ancestors, immigrants from Italy. “My parents worked hard and built a life for their family,” he says. “That is what our workers are trying to do.”