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Time is running out

WASHINGTON -- Labor shortages continue to hamper harvest operations across the country, but advocates warn that Congress may be unlikely to touch immigration reform for years to come if it doesn't act this summer.

"We have until the end of August to get a bill," said New York Apple Association President Jim Allen. After that, Congress will start the presidential election season, and the prospects for relief from the increasing labor problems and tightening border security dim, he said.

"In Idaho, we left apples on the trees," said Kelly Henggeler of Fruitland, ID- based Henggeler Packing Co. Inc. The labor shortage means that some farmers have to decide whether to harvest apples or the more perishable peaches, an agonizing decision after businesses invest thousands of dollars on growing the crops.

Mr. Henggeler said that the labor crisis means that large apple packers are putting out the call for help, and no one has extra crews.

Perhaps a symbol of a growing crisis, the U.S. Apple Association agreed in March to allocate resources -- for the first time -- to ramp up industry participation in the immigration reform debate.

The group will be putting pressure on members of Congress with the message that "immigration reform may be a national issue, but it's also an economic problem in the district," said USApple's Shannon Schaffer. The apple industry would have been hit even harder by labor problems last year if there were a bigger crop, he warned.

On the wish list is the AgJOBS legislation introduced Jan. 10 in the House and Senate by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Larry Craig (R-CA), Ted Kennedy (D- MA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), along with Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA). The bill passed the Senate last year but was attached to a larger immigration package that failed.

"Our house is on fire," said Ed Kershaw, chief executive officer of Yakima, WA-based Domex Inc., a grower-shipper of apples, pears and cherries. "We need solutions now."

The rules of hiring farmworkers have changed, he said. Workers know that supply is a premium, so, armed with cell phones, they can shop for jobs that provide more money, better conditions and longer work stints, he said. Small growers are at greater risk for labor shortages because they cannot offer enough work for long periods of time.

"We now compete with our peers for customers and for labor," said Mr. Kershaw, who is preparing to begin picking cherries in June.

Crews are short by 20-30 percent, according to Western Growers Association's Jason Resnik. As a result, crews with little agriculture experience are working longer hours and needing additional days to get the job done, he said, and turnover is greater.

He confirmed that bidding wars are fierce among employers and labor contractors. Workers can walk from bus to bus to incite bidding wars. "It's creating a lot of animosity between workers and employers," he added.

Current government programs such as the current H-2A and H-2B initiatives move too slowly to catch harvest times for tree fruits, said Mr. Kershaw, who predicted that the industry would have to begin relying more on technology and on synchronizing harvest times like leafy greens growers.

In Florida, the slowing construction industry may be helping to ease labor shortages, at least for now, said Walter Kates, who directs labor issues for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. When the economy picks up in construction, agriculture, which is viewed as an entry-level career choice, will have a difficult time again.

With the "choking off of the border," fewer and fewer workers are available for citrus businesses, he said.

Farm labor shortages and immigration reform are always high on the list of concerns for California growers and shippers, said Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. But "I'm very optimist" for legislation this year, said Mr. Bogart, adding that agriculture's plight swayed Sen. Feinstein to support immigration reform.

The labor situation is "still tight in Salinas" and "very tight" in the Imperial Valley and the Yuma area, he said, adding that he would give a better picture of the availability labor in early April when the season begins.

Mr. Resnik of WGA said that the labor situation was tighter for the Imperial Valley and Yuma harvests because workers close to the border consider it a "hot zone," meaning they're more likely to be rounded up and sent back across the border.

Advocates for immigration reform will be watching to see if the debate stalls, and if so, when to push for AgJOBS as a stand-alone bill.

The rules may have changed with the Democrats in control of Congress, but there are still obstacles. Sources say that the comprehensive immigration bill, which is being drafted by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Kennedy, appears to have hit a snag between the two sponsors.

In the meantime, the produce industry is trying to slay a two-headed dragon: food safety and immigration reform, said Mr. Kershaw of Domex. These two issues represent "the defining moment" for the industry organization's ability to deliver for the companies they represent.

The industry has to rally around a common message to convince Congress that there are policies that can be changed now and in the future, Mr. Kershaw said, adding, "We don't need home runs."