Hurricanes, Politics Blowing Florida's Laborers Away?

August 15, 2006

Florida farmers are concerned that millions of pounds of fruit and vegetables may go unpicked next harvest season because U.S. immigration politics are keeping laborers from their fields.

And if hurricanes wallop the Sunshine State like they did the past two years, the problem could become even worse.

Last year's active hurricane season disrupted agricultural production, sending seasonal farm laborers north in search of work, explains Terence McElroy, a spokesperson with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Tallahassee.

So when the crop was finally ready, fewer laborers were around to pick it.

The citrus harvest normally begins in October and ends by May, but it has dragged through at least June this year.

"That probably was a result of the tight labor we had all year long in the state of Florida," said Mike Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, a Lakeland-based industry trade group.

Hurricanes, better-paying opportunities in the construction industry (including the rebuilding of homes and businesses toppled by storms), and the immigration debate all contributed to the shortage, he says.

Immigration Debate

Many of these seasonal workers are undocumented citizens from Latin America. The U.S. Congress is currently debating—with little progress—how to address the issue of illegal immigration.

"With the immigration debate going nowhere, there are farmworkers who don't want to stay put too long in any one place," McElroy said.

Meanwhile, border security has tightened in recent years.

Sparks says that the ongoing immigration debate still has the citrus industry concerned about a continuing labor shortage, even though the 2006 hurricane season has so far left Florida unscathed (map of Florida).

Continued on Next Page >>


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