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Who will work berry fields?

Hillsborough County’s strawberry harvest is months away, but immigration policies and a worker shortage in California have farmers asking the question.

Published October 5, 2006

PLANT CITY — Rows of black plastic stretch across the fields of eastern Hillsborough County. Called black mulch by farmers, they mark where 8,000 acres of strawberry plants will soon blossom. 

In their tractors lumbering across the fields, Hillsborough County farmers prepare the land. But this year, in addition to the usual worries about fickle weather and a fluctuating market, they are concerned about labor shortages.

Stricter border enforcement kept many Mexican workers out of California this year, according to the New York Times. Farmers there watched tons of pears ripen to a smelly mess.

It may also mean headaches for Hillsborough farmers, who typically employ 8,000 to 9,000 migrants, most of whom are Mexican.

“I would be surprised if we don’t have problems too,” said Chip Hinton , executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. “At one time, farmers only had to worry about Mother Nature and the market. Now there are so many influences on their ability to survive that occur outside their fence posts.”

“What’s really driving this thing is homeland security,” said Gary Wishnatzki,  a Plant City produce broker and strawberry farmer. “But I don’t think they are going to find too many terrorists out in the fields picking strawberries.”

Billy Simmons, a fifth-generation farmer in Plant City, wants a practical guest worker program.

“If they just shut down borders and not take into account the guest worker situation, there’s going to be problems,” said Simmons, who usually employs 85 workers during the peak of the harvest.

He was already short of workers to lay the black plastic that insulates strawberry plants’ roots. He had about half of the normal turnout, “but we got the job done,” Simmons said.

Carl Grooms began planting strawberries Monday. He needed 50 workers, and got just enough. But during the peak of the season, he needs as many as 400. If they don’t show up, “the crops won’t get picked, period,” Grooms said.
Florida produces about one-sixth of the nation’s strawberries, mostly from the Tampa Bay area. Sales topped $232-million in 2005 — 32 percent of Hillsborough County’s total agriculture volume.

Florida has a unique niche when it’s too cold to grow strawberries elsewhere. In the winter, Florida farmers can get as much as $18 for a flat of strawberries. But by spring, California berries fill grocery shelves, ousting local berries and reducing the farmers’ payment to as little as $3 a flat.

Dave Moore,  executive director at Beth-El Farm Worker Ministry Inc. in Wimauma, says many of the workers he sees are switching to other industries.

“With decreasing amount of acreage available for fields, many are transitioning into construction, service industries and hospitality,” he said.

Simmons said the real effect, if any, of the labor shortage on county farmers will be seen during the peak of the picking season this winter.

Wishnatzki  is looking into machinery to reduce his need for workers. The machine would act like a conveyer belt, moving picked strawberries across the field.

[Last modified October 5, 2006, 22:43:31]

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