New Jersey’s blueberry crop is worth $79.5 million a year, making it far and away the state’s most lucrative crop — and it is immigrants who help farmers to bring in the harvest, says Dory Dickson, director of the nonprofit group Migrant Worker Outreach. Although some farmers use mechanical harvesting methods to gather end-of-season berries for making jams and pie-fillings, the premium-quality berries responsible for a farmer’s profit needs to be carefully picked by hand. For that, farmers rely on the 6,000 workers who travel to the Garden State to work in the fields. “The farmers are totally dependent on these workers,” Dickson says.
That workforce is about three-quarters Hispanic and one-quarter Haitian, Dickson says. It is a mix of Americans who trek up from Texas and foreign-born labor hired on guest-worker visas. Some small fraction of the workers may be undocumented, or in the country on visas that don’t allow employment, but the vast majority of the state’s migrant workers are playing by the rules, Dickson says. “There aren’t many people on the East Coast who are taking advantage, or overstaying their visas,” she says. “They like to be able to go back home, and be with their families, and then come back the next year. That means everything’s got to be above board.”
The farmers are totally dependent on these workers.
Another thing that’s clear, Dickson says, is that the foreign-born workers aren’t taking jobs that would otherwise have gone to Americans. “People who live here aren’t interested in working the fields, because it’s just backbreaking work,” she says. One study found that even in 2011, a time of relatively high unemployment, only 268 U.S.-born workers applied for the 6,500 farm jobs that were open in North Carolina, despite heavy advertising of the positions. Of those U.S.-born applicants, just seven completed the harvest season — meaning such workers filled just 0.1 percent of open farm jobs that year.
“It’s one thing if you’ve got a couple of rows of berries in your garden, and you can pick a few and then go have a glass of ice tea. But these workers are out there in the sun, hustling, for 12 to 14 hours a day.” Even in the air-conditioned processing plants where berries are sorted and boxed, it’s hard to find enough local labor, Dickson says. “The growers advertise in the local papers, but they’ve told me it’s hard to get anyone.”
Besides bringing much-needed agricultural labor, migrant workers also give the economy a shot in the arm. “These workers make their money, then they go buy things,” Dickson says. “Part of their paychecks they send to their families, and the rest they spend here in Camden County, or Burlington County, or Atlantic County.” The migrant workers also get state and federal taxes deducted from their wages, even though they don’t stick around to use the services their taxes pay for, Dickson notes. “If they’re here on a guest-worker visa, they aren’t eligible for the same services you’d get as a citizen — but they’re paying the same taxes.”
Dickson doesn’t want to compromise her relationships with farmers and workers by advocating for specific immigration reforms, but she says there are clear benefits to allowing foreign workers to come and gather in the harvest on American farms. “They contribute through their taxes, plus through their work, plus through the money they spend,” she says. “And it also means we can buy our fruit and vegetables at a lower price.” Ultimately, Dickson says, the question of how many people to allow into the United States is something that’s better resolved through supply and demand than through politically determined caps on immigration. “I think the people who should have the final word are the workers and the growers themselves,” she says.