Farms can't find pickers

In some areas, farm labor is so scarce that inmates in nearby penitentiaries are picking crops.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/CSM/File
Legal workers - day laborers or legal residents, mainly from Mexico - harvest winter lettuce. Arizona's crackdown on immigration is making farm pickers sparse. Farm owners are relying more and more on convict labor as a result.

President Obama says Americans want to go to work. Unemployed Americans don’t want a handout he says, each time he proposes extending unemployment benefits. Republican Senate leaders, he said, “are advancing a misguided notion that emergency relief somehow discourages people from looking for a job should talk to these folks.”

“That attitude, I think, reflects a lack of faith in the American people,” says Mr. Obama. “Because the Americans I hear from, in letters and town hall meetings, Americans like Leslie and Jim and Denise — they’re not looking for a handout. They desperately want to work. It’s just, right now, they can’t find a job.”

Out-of-work aesthetician Leslie Macko, former body-parts manager Jim Chukalas, and unemployed maintenance supervisor Denise Gibson joined the president as props for a photo op and speech fodder last summer. “These are honest, decent, hardworking folks who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own and who have nowhere else to turn except unemployment benefits and who need emergency relief to help them weather this economic storm,” said the President.

Depending upon which government unemployment figure you follow, nearly one in five Americans is unemployed. Yet at harvest time farmers are finding that the only willing labor has to come from a nearby penitentiary.

In Idaho, farm labor is so scarce, convicts from the minimum-security St. Anthony Work Camp are picking, sorting and packing spuds for $7.50 an hour and happy to have work outside the prison walls. “The best part is you have the influence of the real world, which eventually we’re all going back to,” said Thomas Alworth, a 36-year-old convicted of grand theft by possession.

Convict labor in Arizona is up 30 percent this year, with Arizona’s tough immigration law a primary reason. “The crackdown on immigrants just makes it so hard” to find workers, said Richard Selapack, vice president for labor contracts at the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Frank van Straalen, COO of Eurofresh Farms in Wilcox, Arizona, says very few native-born Americans apply for jobs in his greenhouses and those that do typically quit.

Jerry Spencer had the same experience at his tomato farm north of Birmingham. After his Hispanic workers left with the passage of Alabama’s new immigration law, he thought he’d recruit unemployed U.S. citizens to pick the tomatoes. However, “jobless resident Americans lack the physical stamina and the mental toughness to see the job through,” Spencer told the Associated Press.

Tomato farmer Helen Jenkins says, “It’s just not working,” referring to the new law. “You can’t get the (American) workers out here to do the work that the Hispanics were doing. They’re just not capable.”

Lana Boatwright, another tomato farmer, told the AP that many of the people she has tried to hire were concerned about losing their government disability payments if they went to work for her.

Mr. van Straalem, a third of whose workers are prisoners, told the Wall Street Journal, “We’re fortunate, we’re near a prison here.”

Restaurateurs and farmers in Georgia are having trouble finding help since the passage of HB 87 in April. The labor shortage left crops rotting fields this spring and summer at a cost of $74.9 million to Georgia farmers. The farmers said they lacked 40 percent of the total work force they needed.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released producer price index (PPI) data for September. In the release’s Stage-of-Processing Analysis section was this,

Finished foods: Prices for finished consumer foods climbed 0.6 percent in September, the fourth consecutive monthly increase. Accounting for over eighty percent of the September advance, prices for fresh and dry vegetables increased 10.0 percent.

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