Bill Landreth bought a second tractor as Berries by Bill Inc. sold more melons, sweet corn and strawberries.
He also expanded to 200 the acreage of his Newport, Arkansas, farm devoted to the fruits and vegetables, though that’s where the growth will end. After that, he runs out of workers.
“We could do more, but I’m not sure we could harvest more because of the labor,” Landreth said as his tractor moved slowly through plowed rows with workers following behind, transplanting seedlings into freshly turned earth.
Landreth and other farmers in Arkansas, the nation’s 15th-biggest crop-producing state, say they would like to take advantage of the push by advocates such first lady Michele Obama and health professionals to get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. Those crops take more workers to plant and harvest.
That has him watching debate on immigration that resumes today in Congress, hoping for relief. Farmworker visas were among the final details resolved last month in bipartisan negotiations among a group of U.S. senators on a compromise bill. In the House, lawmakers backed a larger guest-worker program in a plan late last month.
The Senate Judiciary Committee today resumed consideration of about 300 proposed changes, starting with border security and leaving until later agricultural-worker programs. The panel adopted a proposal by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, to shorten the distance aerial drones could monitor on the California side of the U.S. border. It defeated an amendment by Senator Jeff Sessions, a Alabama Republican, to require that a biometric visa exit system be set up before an undocumented immigrant could become a citizen.
U.S. crop farms either grow commodities such as corn, wheat and soybeans -- harvested with massive Deere & Co. tractors --or sow crops like fruits and vegetables that are hand-picked. While states in the Corn Belt, the nation’s main grain region, employed 38,000 agricultural workers at the start of 2012, California, the nation’s chief fresh-produce state, had 135,000 workers.
Farm-lobby groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farmer group, say cumbersome regulations make it difficult for fresh-produce growers to meet their needs for field workers.
“For a 10-acre strawberry farmer, the paperwork and bureaucracy they’d have to go through would be absolutely prohibitive” to expand, said Chuck Conner, acting U.S. agriculture secretary in the final months of President George W. Bush’s administration who now heads the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, a nationwide agricultural group.
Arkansas, the leading U.S. rice producer, grew $34.8 million of fruits, nuts and vegetables, less than 1 percent of its $5.3 billion crop of grains and oilseeds. Still, the value of the state’s niche crops, such as strawberries and watermelons, has increased 53 percent since 2010, out pacing traditional field plants such as rice and soybeans.
Farmers now have reasons to plant new crops, said Calvin Shumway, an agriculture professor at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. Produce buyers are seeking multiple sources to shield against regional crop failures, and the popularity of locally grown food has fueled a 150 percent surge in the number of farmers markets, he said.
Michele Obama is an advocate of serving fruits and vegetables in the nation’s schools, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February proposed standards to encourage healthy snacks for students.
“The farm economy’s been good, and farmers are always looking for opportunities to make them better,” Shumway said in an interview.
A lack of workers can impede taking advantage of those opportunities, farmers say. Declining rural populations leave fewer kids at home to help in the harvest, said Samantha Matthews, co-owner of Matthews Sweet Potato Farm outside Wynne, Arkansas. Job-seekers from Memphis, about 50 miles east, quickly tire of farm work, said Matthews, 48, whose business, which dates to the 1800s, sells mainly sweet potatoes to grocers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Supervalu Inc.
The current H-2A visa program adds costs for hand-picked crops, which are already higher than for corn or soybeans, by requiring employers to pay for transport and housing and to advertise job openings that U.S.-born workers are unlikely to seek. Some farmers in Arkansas are discouraged from trying crops that might be more profitable and meet consumer demand for healthier varieties of fresh food, she said.
“If it were not quite so expensive, you would see more of our type of produce grown in Arkansas,” she said.
About 300,000 farmworkers lack valid immigration documents, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Other studies suggest the total may exceed 1 million, depending on time of year and historical migration trends.
Under the deal grower and farmworker groups struck last month, guest-worker visas would be capped at 337,000 over three years. Current requirements to advertise and pay housing and transportation expenses would be relaxed. In return, laborers would be able to switch employers, a key demand of farmworker advocates who considered it a way to enhance worker protections as other rules are eased.
The House plan would make 500,000 visas available a year and would drop housing and transport requirements, which immediately drew objections from farmworkers who said such a plan would depress wages and leave employees without adequate protections. While the Senate plan provides a path to citizenship, the House would not.
Any benefit from a more readily available pool of farm workers is overshadowed by the burdens on local schools and health-care systems from an influx of less-educated workers, said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group critical of increased immigration. Further, the need for more U.S.-grown fresh produce is dubious, he said.
“Most of our clothing, much of our electronics is already imported -- is it a big deal if we grow more corn and buy our strawberries elsewhere?” he said. U.S. advantages in mechanized harvesting should be encouraged, which the House and Senate plans impede by increasing the supply of cheap labor, he said. “America’s advantage will never be low wages, it will be productivity. This retards productivity growth.”
A lack of labor lowers potential profits of Arkansas farmers, said Landreth, who at harvest will have about 20 workers handling watermelons on 85 acres. Mechanically harvested soybeans are going on 80 acres, easing his worker needs on land he said he’d rather plant in hand-picked sweet corn.
In Arkansas, the decision to plant fruits and vegetables is trickier than in California, where weather and the state’s history with migrant labor supports the fresh-produce industry, or Iowa, where conditions are ideal for corn. The heritage and infrastructure in Arkansas is geared toward grain and cotton, yet its climate and ample water and makes it promising for warmer-weather crops.
Other farmers “look at us like we’re strange, but we get good prices,” said Landreth, who sells produce at a farmstand and distributes across the U.S. Midwest and South.
Landreth harvested his first strawberries in 2000. Last year he made $640,000 on 150 acres, almost seven times what he could make growing soybeans on the same land, according to USDA data. About a quarter of his revenue pays for labor. While he’d like to add more acres for grow fresh produce, oilseeds take less work to harvest.
The H-2A rules are inflexible, making it harder to get immigrant workers to the state, and the time to file an application and wait for approval may not match a farmer’s needs, he said. A late planting caused by cold, wet weather -- similar to this year -- leaves workers without little to do, adding to costs, he said.
“If we could get guys when we need them, that would make a big difference,” Landreth said.
Matthews said she hires about 75 H-2A workers, about three-quarters of her peak workforce during harvest. She said the system would be better if farm owners and farmworkers had more flexibility.
“When I’m making planting decisions, I’m also thinking about housing and transportation costs for labor,” she said. “I want to be thinking about the crop.”