CLARKS SUMMIT, Pa. (AP) — Saying the nation's immigration system is broken, Pennsylvania's largest grower of fresh-to-market tomatoes announced Monday he will no longer produce the crop because he can't find enough workers to harvest it.
Keith Eckel, 61, a fourth-generation farmer and the owner of Fred W. Eckel Sons Farms Inc., said he saw a dramatic decline last summer in the number of migrant workers who showed up to pick tomatoes at his 2,000-acre farm in northeastern Pennsylvania.
He said Congress' failure to approve comprehensive immigration reform had hindered his ability to hire enough workers to get his crop to the market. Most of Eckel's workers came from Mexico.
"There are a number of workers hesitant to travel, legal or illegal, because of the scrutiny they are now under," said Eckel, whose tomatoes have been shipped to supermarkets and restaurants throughout the eastern United States. "So there are less workers crossing state lines."
Eckel, who planted 2.2 million tomato plants last year, said he also will stop growing pumpkins and will plant half as much sweet corn as usual, resulting in a loss of nearly 175 jobs.
Eckel, one of the largest growers of fresh tomatoes in the Northeast, said it cost him $1.5 million to $2 million to plant and harvest a tomato crop — too much of an investment to risk not having enough workers at harvest time.
"The system to provide our labor is broken and the emotion surrounding the immigration issue is standing in the way of those in the political arena moving forward to solve it," Eckel told a news conference at his farm in Clarks Summit.
Congress failed to pass legislation last year that would have allowed immigrants — some already in the country illegally and some who would come from abroad — to work through guest-worker and legalization programs.
Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, predicted other farmers would follow Eckel's lead and stop growing labor-intensive crops unless the government developed a reliable guest-worker program.
"The American consumer really needs to wake up to this issue," said Shaffer, who joined Eckel at the news conference. "It's not just an immigration issue, it's an issue that's going to affect everyone's food supply."
Eckel does not participate in the federal government's H-2A guest worker program, which allows farmers to bring in foreigners if they can prove that workers can't be found locally. Like many farmers, Eckel believes the program is too cumbersome. He said he wouldn't qualify for it anyway because his growing season is too short.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, U.S. farmers hired only about 75,000 H-2A workers in 2007 — while an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 workers in the United States were illegal immigrants.
The Labor Department has announced plans to overhaul the H-2A system, but the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is calling for a guest-worker program to be built from scratch that will provide a stable, legal supply of labor.
Though Eckel's tomato pickers made an average of $16.59 per hour last year, he said the relatively high wage is not enough to attract local labor to work the fields.
"A lot of people think with immigration that we're talking about immigrants taking jobs from others. Let me tell you, there is no local labor that is going to go out and harvest those tomatoes in 90-degree temperatures except our immigrant labor," Eckel said. "They come here to do a job that no one else will do in this country."
Eckel said he is scrupulous about asking workers for immigration documents. Nevertheless, he wants to avoid the risk of a federal immigration raid. He cited national surveys that found as many as 70 percent of U.S. farm workers are in the country illegally.
The acreage he previously devoted to tomatoes and pumpkins will be converted to field corn that is harvested by machines.
Ray Vega, 64, who came to the United States from Mexico as a boy and has worked seasonally at Eckel's farm since 1970, said many migrant workers "are scared to travel anymore" because they're afraid of being picked up by immigration authorities.