Fallen Fruit

In a development that’s surprised exactly no one, fruits and vegetables are rotting in fields across the United States after a crackdown on illegal immigration. An excellent and moving story in the Chicago Tribune earlier this month reported that farmers have had trouble getting the crops in, with more labor shortages likely on the way:

[T]he growers are now counting on a string of troubled harvests to persuade Congress to come to agriculture’s rescue, pointing to Michigan, where farmers say they lost 20 percent of their asparagus crop earlier this year because they didn’t have enough workers. Last year Michigan apple growers say they lost up to 15 percent of their crop for the same reason, and they are now anxiously waiting to see if enough farmhands show up for the coming harvest.

It’s estimated that 70 percent of farm workers are illegal immigrants, and farmers are blaming tighter border security for the shortage. The Tribune talks to a 27-year-old who was arrested seven times at the border in the last month before making it across. He saw bodies in the desert of people who died trying. Opponents of immigration reform say that farmers should be using the federal H-2A program, which brings farm workers to the United States legally. But farmers call the program too slow and bureaucratic, and are pushing Congress for reform (i.e., the right to hire undocumented workers).

In New York’s Hudson Valley, where apple trees have had a “vintage” crop this year, the New York Times says that growers are nervous about a new regulation which will hold them responsible for hiring illegal immigrants with fake documents—even if the farmers believed the documents were legitimate. Fewer immigrant workers may mean fewer New York apples, says Peter Gregg, a spokesman for the New York Apple Association:

‘We have three billion apples to pick this fall and every single one of them has to be picked by hand,’ Mr. Gregg said. ‘It’s a very labor-intensive industry, and there is no local labor supply that we can draw from, as much as we try. No one locally really wants to pick apples for six weeks in the fall.’

With immigration reform stalled, the industry is putting more money into mechanization. NPR’s Marketplace reports on the development of fruit-picking robots, or “agrobots.” In theory, the robots will even be able to determine if the fruit’s ripe. Of course, since fruit in orchards is rarely picked ripe, that’s, sadly, an unnecessary feature.

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