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The port of Tampa could become home to a ferry service between Florida and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo by Chip Carter)

An Orlando, FL, entrepreneur may have unwittingly stumbled onto a partial solution to Florida’s growing agricultural labor problem. Bruce Nierenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of ship operator United Caribbean Lines, announced last month his company plans to begin regular ferry service from the port of Tampa across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula in the second half of 2012.

Currently, workers from Mexico are bused to Florida, a trip that takes between two and three days and costs on average $220 per passenger. A ferry could make the 500-mile trip from the Yucatan to Tampa in about 28 hours at a cost of $190 per passenger, Mr. Nierenberg said.

The service could make as many as 120 trips a year, depending on need, utilizing leased, European-style ships, which can accommodate 1,000 to 2,000 passengers and offer staterooms or seat-only options.

Not only would such a service provide a possible alternative for importing seasonal labor, it also could generate $300 million a year in economic impact and create at least 100 shore-side jobs in Tampa Bay, Mr. Nierenberg said.

The more immediate question is, who will harvest and process Florida crops this winter and spring?

Florida farmers watched in dismay last spring as crops went unpicked due to a shortage of agricultural workers. Despite average pay well above minimum wage (the average wage rate for workers hired by farms and agricultural service operations ranges from $10.70-$12.20, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and some laborers make $15 an hour or more based on performance) and persistent unemployment, many Florida growers still face severe labor shortages. A broken H-2A federal guest worker visa program and proposed anti-immigration legislation in Florida combined to hamper harvesting efforts last season, and growers fear a repeat in 2012.

Agricultural service operations help, providing verified labor for a surcharge. But such services provided just 8,000 workers in Q1 2011 (based on a survey week of Jan. 9-15) a fraction of the 53,000 seasonal farm laborers employed in Florida during that period.

But Florida ag producers are rightfully concerned about who will show up to harvest this year’s crop. There have been reports that migrant workers have been leaving Alabama for Florida in droves in light of the former’s recently implemented anti-immigration legislation. But are those people going to Florida to work, or will Florida face a repeat of last spring?

“I wish I could answer that question,” said Adam Basford, director of national affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau. “One group of people says Florida is a harbor state because we don’t have E-Verify in our law; then on the other side, you look at us as an island because you can’t get to Florida without passing through a state that has that kind of enforcement. Those people might have come into Florida and seen it as a little bit of a haven, but who knows? The only thing I can be sure of in ag employment is there will be unknowns, people scratching their heads and hoping beyond hope they can fill their work needs — and that shouldn’t be. People have admitted at the federal level over and over that there could be a program that can work for the needs of agriculture; the sad fact is they haven’t passed something yet. Until they do, our people every year are going to have to fight that question and worry.”

A ferry program could prove helpful “if we had a legal way to get individuals on the boat, but currently there is none,” said Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland, FL-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange.

Mike Carlton, director of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association Labor Relations Division, was more optimistic. “I would say it is a possible alternative for the bus transportation that is currently used — at an estimated cost of $220 round trip — for H-2A workers. And if the H-2A program continues to grow, it could prove important.”

Mr. Basford agrees that the proposed ferry “in theory could help. Part of the problem with the H-2A program is the requirement to pay for travel. If you have a way to expedite that process and eliminate some of the cost, just that aspect would be a positive. It’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t think it will have a major impact. What we need is something to help the process. The system is broken; we need something to fix the system. We don’t have a functional program that can meet the need of Florida ag employers. H-2A is cumbersome, burdensome and opens people up to litigation. If we can come up with another program to complement H-2A or make major H-2A reforms — and both of those options are on the table in the U.S. House — that’s what we need to focus on: getting real, meaningful reform at the federal level.”

Immigration and illegal laborers are “a very inflammatory issue and very hard to deal with in the public policy sector,” Mr. Basford said. “There are true national security issues that need to be addressed there. But [immigration and labor] is the ultimate head-in-the-sand issue. People don’t realize the full implications, and it’s so emotionally based. Whether it’s slavery or amnesty, either side has the inflammatory language that makes progress so difficult.”

Mr. Basford recommends that the focus of labor discussions be shifted from immigrants to individuals who want to come to the United States to work seasonally and then return home.

“We should target those people who want to come to the U.S. for specific jobs for a specific amount of time and then go back, that’s who we need to target,” Mr. Basford said. “We’d all like to think that in a nation where we’ve got 9.1-percent unemployment, that those people who need jobs would go fill them in the agricultural sector; we like to think that, but that’s simply not the case. The people who are here to stay present a true immigration policy issue that is beyond the scope of getting a workforce.”

The idea of a workable ferry for Mexican labor “just highlights the fact that the logistics, though they’re cumbersome and difficult, are not the problem issue here,” Mr. Basford said. “If we had a way to get people authorized to work, we could get them here.”

Tampa’s port is the 16th-busiest in the nation in terms of tonnage and handles steady cruise ship traffic, so the area is well-equipped to handle an influx of ferry traffic.

Mr. Nierenberg is a 40-year veteran of the cruise ship business and previously had announced plans for a ferry from Tampa to Cuba, pending easing of U.S. restrictions against travel to that country. He hopes to create a ferry network servicing the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.

The idea of a Tampa/Mexico ferry is not a new one. Previous operators provided ferry service for short periods in 1998 and 2002 before encountering a variety of business problems that drove them out of the market.