Farmers Fear Migrant Workers Will Stay Away From Illinois and Indiana Farms | WBEZ
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Farmers Fear Migrant Workers Will Stay Away From Illinois and Indiana Farms

Farmers in Illinois and Indiana are already gearing up for the harvest season next fall. 

Some farmers are worried that finding workers could be a challenge after recent crackdowns on undocumented immigrants under President Donald Trump. 

“That concern is real for quite a few of our farmers that use migrant workers,” said Robert White, director of national government relations for Indiana Farm Bureau. “We do not in Indiana specifically have a large number of specialty crops that require hand harvest but nevertheless our folks are worried that they may not have enough workers to get the jobs done when harvest rolls around.”

Like in Indiana, Illinois farmers are concerned and don’t know what to expect with the new crackdown, according to the Illinois Farm Bureau, based in Bloomington.

“It remains to be seen whether those folks are going to show up,” said Adam Nielsen, the Illinois Farm Bureau's director of national legislation and policy development. “I know of one orchard in central Illinois where every year the workers show up like clockwork for the farmer. I know that he’s concerned that they may not be there this fall under these circumstances.” 

White said migrant workers start arriving in Indiana in the mid-summer to help pick apples, cherries and peaches in northern farms, and melons, cantaloupe and watermelons in the southern part of the state. 

If enough workers aren’t found, food prices could rise dramatically, White said. 

“If they don’t get the number they need of migrant workers, you’ll have produce left in the field or on the tree,” White said. “If it’s a severe loss (in migrant workers), it could be a severe loss in harvest and you can see a substantial price increase in fresh produce, fresh fruits and vegetables. Twenty to 30 percent price increases.” 

Nielsen added: “I think farmers may have to look at Plan B. I can’t tell you what that will be. … There will be a dramatic rise in the cost of food if we are unable to solve this problem.”

According to the Pew Research Center, there were about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States in 2014. Eight million were in the workforce, with about 2 million in farming, making up more than a quarter of all migrant farm workers. 

Nielsen said farmers likely won’t look to American citizens to fill the slots left by a loss of migrant workers.

“These are jobs that Americans won’t do at any wage. It’s been proven over time,” Nielsen said. “An orchard owner in southern Illinois told me that the domestic workforce would take a job paying $2 an hour less to bus tables in his restaurant rather than pick fruit in his orchard. Those that do take the job do it out of desperation.”

If produce farmers can’t get enough workers, Nielsen said, they may stop growing fruits and vegetables all together. 

“That means we’re going to be importing more of food and that will have an impact at the grocery store,” Nielsen said. “We’re not there yet. We could be years away from that unfolding but that’s the direction that we’re headed.” 

Nielsen said there are also “many, many” undocumented workers working on dairy farms, and food and meat processors.

“These folks are a big part of the labor force and the production of food,” he said. “We do need to get to a solution. We’re going to continue to make the point to our elected officials of the need for long-term immigration reform that addresses the need of agriculture and many other industries.”

Nielsen said the effects of stepped up enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security could scare off workers sooner rather than later.

“If interior enforcement goes after particular businesses where they think undocumented workers are at work, it could happen tomorrow,” Nielsen says. 

Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Studio Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.

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