USA Today Opinion: Thanksgiving without the sides: Lack of farm labor could make fruits, vegetables unaffordable

By Gary Wishnatzki

This Thanksgiving, as your family gathers together to eat classic holiday sides like green beans, sweet potatoes, corn and apple pie, imagine what it would be like to not have those dishes on your table. Because unless something is done about the lack of qualified agriculture workers that growers like myself are facing, we are headed down a path where the average American will not be able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

As a third-generation family farmer with decades of experience, I’ve spent years grappling with the impact of this worker shortage.

I grow strawberries. This April, at the beginning of peak harvest season, I didn’t have enough workers to pick all the ripe berries before they rotted in the fields. In a single month, I lost $500,000.

When I first entered the strawberry business in the 1970s, the fruit was considered a luxury item. In the winter, we’d sell them to New York City vendors for the equivalent of nearly $200 a box today. If you wanted to bake a pie with fresh fruit, you had to wait until the early summer harvest. Today, fresh strawberries are readily available and reasonably priced in grocery stores year-round because farms like my own are growing more fruit.

Jobs Americans don’t want

It takes a lot of workers to pick those acres, but the domestic labor simply isn’t available. This means that unless our elected officials make drastic changes to immigration policy — and allow us to hire more foreign-born workers — many Americans will soon have to give up their strawberries and other crops that must be laboriously picked by hand.

The United States already imports more than half of the fresh fruits and almost a third of fresh vegetables that Americans eat. This is happening because the demand for fresh produce has been steadily increasing, while the number of people willing to work on farms has plummeted.

Every year, I advertise for American workers and get few replies. It’s why, according to data from New American Economy, in 2014 immigrants account for more than 77 percent of Florida’s ag workers. In California, they account for 69 percent of the ag workforce that same year.

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…