How federal legislators settle the debate over immigration reform will have significant impact on who can pick and harvest fruits and vegetables on South Jersey farms.

At stake is whether the region’s farmers will again have a steady supply of seasonal laborers to work their properties, something that changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, increased national security has made it more difficult for farm laborers to legally enter the country from Mexico and Central America, officials with the state’s agricultural community say. Immigrants who are in the country illegally are more wary of moving from state to state or region to region to work seasonal crops, they said.

“It’s more and more of a struggle,” Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said of farmers’ ability to find a stable seasonal work force, something that leads to higher costs for both farmers and consumers.

“We want to get out of that no-man’s land of uncertainty and have Congress create this system that will provide certainty for the farming industry,” he said. “It’s within our grasp more than ever before.”

Furey’s optimism is the result of a U.S. Senate version of the immigration bill that he said would accomplish two significant things: Adjust the status of illegal immigrants and create an improved guest-worker program.

A status adjustment is not an amnesty, he said. The program could involve illegal immigrants paying some fines, getting the necessary documentation for them to legally remain in the United States, and agreeing to work in agriculture in this country for a particular period of time, he said.

“What the growers need is to have a legal immigration system that meets the needs of production agriculture,” Furey said.

That help would also extend further than the state’s fruit and vegetable producers.

“For years, we have pushed Congress to vote on immigration reform, and we are confident that we are making progress,” said Dominick Mondi, executive director of the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association.

Finding a steady work force is crucial to New Jersey farmers.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture show the market value of all products sold by New Jersey farms increased from $987 million in 2007 to slightly more than $1 billion in 2012. The data further show the market value of products sold on an average New Jersey farm of 79 acres in 2012 exceeded $111,000. That is an increase of more than $14,000 from 2007, when the average farm in the state totaled 71 acres.

State agriculture officials said there is great difficulty in accurately gauging the number of farmworkers in New Jersey. Estimates are complicated because of the mobility of migrant and seasonal farmworkers, they said. The best estimate is that there were anywhere from 12,000 to 14,000 workers on New Jersey farms in 2013, they said.

The federal government reported that, since 2001, about 50 percent of hired crop farmworkers are not legally authorized to work in the United States. The estimate stood at 15 percent from 1989 to 1991, it reported. Statistics for New Jersey were not available.

The result of many of those illegal immigrants unwilling to move throughout the country is hurting farmers financially. Agri-view, a Wisconsin-based agricultural news agency, reported that agricultural employers suffered more than $300 million in losses in 2010 because of worker shortages.

Meghan Hurley, communications coordinator for the Farmworker Support Committee, said farmworkers, and especially those who are in the country illegally, want the situation resolved fairly.

“In terms of the past couple of years, it is harder for state-to-state travel,” she said. “There is a higher risk of them being caught.”

The committee goes by the designation of CATA. That is an acronym for its formal Spanish name, El Comite de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas.

CATA was founded by migrant farmworkers in South Jersey in 1979. The organization is governed by and comprised of migrant and immigrant workers, with their efforts geared toward creating better living and working conditions for themselves and their families.

The National Center for Farmworker Health reported that the annual income for an individual farm laborer ranges from $12,500 to $14,999. The range increases from $17,500 to $19,999 for the average farmworker family, it reported. The center further reported that about 23 percent of all farmworkers have family incomes below the federal government’s poverty guidelines.

Hurley argued that farm employers are the only ones who will truly benefit by solving the farm labor shortage.

Changing the status of illegal immigrant farmworkers may allow them to more freely move through the United States to work the fields, she said. Those workers will still be a group of people hired to “provide cheap labor to produce cheap food,” she said.

“It still keeps the workers in the lower class and being taken advantage of,” Hurley said.

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197

Worked as a reporter for various weekly newspapers in Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties before joining The Press many moons (and editors) ago as a business copy editor. Passionate about journalism, averse to serial commas.