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Colorado crops OK for now, but need for immigration reform ever more pressing

July 17, 2017 Updated: July 17, 2017 at 6:38 am
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Ploughed and stubble fields in an agricultural landscape in Guadalajara Province, Spain

Despite concerns this year that the new Trump administration's hard-line immigration policies would lead to labor shortages across Colorado's agricultural sector, growers and their advocates are breathing a sigh of relief as the harvest approaches. They are confident they'll have the hands to pick and package what could be a bumper crop.

But even though one component of the country's sprawling immigration system appears to be working this summer, industry experts and a newly formed state coalition of business and civic leaders say that doesn't mean the system is any less broken.

They warn if Washington doesn't get its arms around the problem - and move beyond arguing over who's paying for a wall on the country's southern border with Mexico, a centerpiece of President Donald Trump's campaign - vast swaths of the economy will suffer, from the farms and orchards that grow fruits and vegetables to Silicon Valley and other centers that fuel innovation in technology.

"The realities of immigration reform have yet to change," said Jeff Wasden, president of the Colorado Business Roundtable, one of a dozen business and community groups that got together in December to form Coloradans for Immigration Reform, a coalition established by the New American Economy advocacy group. "While we're biting around the edges, nothing significant has been done to impact the needs of the ag and tech communities."

When the coalition was assembled, Chad Vorthmann, the Farm Bureau's executive vice president, called on congressional leaders to turn their attention to reforming immigration laws.

"Effective immigration reform means protecting and securing our borders while still allowing for the free movement of labor and goods," he said.

The view from Palisade

Bruce Talbott, owner of Talbott Mountain Gold in Palisade - in the family since 1907, the orchards grow peaches, wine grapes, pears and cherries - told Colorado Politics he'll be able to get his fruit off the trees and to market this season with the help of his usual contingent of immigrant workers, but that doesn't mean he's happy about the situation.

"The rhetoric has had a cooling effect on immigration, but we're status quo with what we've had the last 10 years," Talbott said, noting that most of his workers are from Mexico, brought into the country under the H-2A visa program. "It's expensive, it's onerous, it's wrought with risk. We really would rather have a simpler program that's less bureaucratic and more efficient."

H-2A visas - around since 1986, the last time Washington undertook a comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy - allow employers to contract foreign workers for as long as 10 months a year from an approved list of countries. There's no cap to the number of workers that can be brought into the United States using the visas, but there's a strict list of requirements employers must satisfy, including meeting local wage requirements and providing housing, transportation and meals.

"I think we have the infrastructure in place to go on indefinitely with the system," Talbott said, including a full-time bookkeeper who spends about one-fourth of her time managing the visas and a longstanding relationship with an employment agency in Virginia that handles much of the federal paperwork. But he worries the program's aging structure is driving farmers from the market and could soon leave Americans without much locally grown produce, unless Congress and the president make it a priority to modernize the system.

(The H-2A visa is in a different situation than the nearly universally denounced H-2B visa system, just one more corner of the vast immigration puzzle. For workers in nonagricultural businesses, tech workers, for example, those H-2B visas are capped nationally at about 30,000 available for a six-month period, and they're snapped up within a day as soon as the application period opens.)

The problem, Talbott stressed, is that most smaller fruit and vegetable operations and many larger ones aren't investing in the infrastructure that must be in place to fulfill federal requirements to hire temporary immigrant workers. Instead, he warned, they are moving on and abandoning the market sector.

"We have bunkhouses, we've already invested in the infrastructure to support these crews. It's the smaller growers, to medium size growers that get hammered. It's forcing consolidation of organizations - dealing with compliance in general and with labor in particular, it makes more sense to run a big operation, and young entrepreneurs aren't even getting started. It's a long way from the diversified family farm," he said.

'Losing the ability to compete'

"Commodities are different," Talbott noted, because mechanization makes it possible to farm enormous acreage of wheat and corn, for instance, without needing more than a handful of workers. "But when it's a high-labor crop, we're rapidly losing the ability to compete in the world market. People are deciding to plant crops that don't require much labor - you see orchards going back into almonds and commodities and things they can mechanize. You see the vegetables declining and you see some of the fruit declining."

That means a lot of crops aren't planted in the first place.

"If a guy isn't reasonably confident he can get through the season, he isn't going to commit in the first place. It doesn't show up as a crop-loss situation," he said.

"I'm glad Colorado peaches are really special, or we might not have the crop value to be able to afford to continue to do what we're doing," he added with a rueful chuckle. "If we were just growing a mediocre crop, probably this would all be houses here. But it's because people get excited about it, we're still in fruit."

He said until the problems with reliable labor supply are solved, the state will continue to see growers fleeing the market, just like they are around the country.

"If we're building packing lines, planting new orchards - we're making 20-year decisions doing those things. You're just not going to do it, you're going to put your money somewhere else. And if somebody retires, they don't find anyone who wants to keep going with vegetables - their farm goes to alfalfa or it's sold off and turned into houses."

Talbott said that availability of labor over the years has led him to adjust what fruits he grows. His ratio is about 65 percent peaches, 30 percent grapes and 5 percent pears and cherries. He said he has a steady market for grapes from the burgeoning wine industry taking root in Mesa County, but that growing the crop has more to do with labor management than diversifying production.

"Grapes are a very marginal crop compared to peaches," he said. "But if I grow grapes, I can keep my H-2A crew really happy for 9 to 10 months, and that'll keep them coming back."

This year, as he has for some time, Talbott is employing 40 skilled workers from Mexico using the H-2A visas, along with 15 year-round workers from the surrounding area in the Grand Valley. He pays his foreign workers $11.02 an hour "plus housing, plus transportation to and from Mexico, plus utilities, and we guarantee them a 9-month contract, all at no cost to them," he said.

"We are hiring skilled workers, we are paying for skilled workers - they have to have two months of fruit experience in the last five years to be eligible to take our visas. It's a sweet deal when they're coming up," Talbott said. "They know who they're going to work for, they have a bus they all get on in Monterey - from their standpoint, it's a very stable, safe system."

About 85 to 90 percent of his foreign workers return each year, he added.

"The big carrot is, 'Guys, you have to get along with each other - you're invited back if we're happy, but if there are problems, you're not invited back.' There's a sense of camaraderie and common purpose. They are here to work."

'Like picking fiberglass'

Talbott said that he's often asked why he goes to all the trouble and expense hiring temporary foreign workers. One of the chief criticisms of such visas is that they take jobs from American workers.

"In the 200-plus contracts I've done in the last 10 years on H-2A visas. I've had two people not finish a contract. Out of the corresponding workers," he said, using the term for the local workers who must be offered jobs to fulfill federal requirements, "I've had two people make it, and they had special circumstances. In reality I've never had a corresponding worker finish a contract."

It's nearly impossible to hire local workers to work in the orchards, and it has been for more than two decades, Talbott said. "My corresponding workers - this guy didn't show up because his car didn't start, the next guy didn't show up because he had something going on. The H-2A workers, they're ready to work, and if I can't get them 10 hours a day, they're disappointed."

"I could get to harvest hiring people locally," he acknowledged, "but once it gets hot - peaches are harvested when it's 80, 90, 95 degrees, the fuzz is in the air, it's like picking fiberglass. It's a difficult job. If I was picking today like I did when I was young, I would go home at 6 o'clock and go to bed. Once we get to harvest, we don't have access to any kind of a local crew that has the tenacity these guys do."

Even among H-2A workers, agriculture's needs aren't homogeneous.

"A dairy in Fort Morgan has different needs than a peach grower in Palisades, who has much different needs from a potato guy in the San Luis Valley, vs. a sheep grower in central Colorado," Brent Boydston, formerly of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said in a past interview.

"You have very distinct labor needs, yet you're going to shove everyone into one rigid, inflexible program and say, here you go," he said.

Vorthmann, the Farm Bureau's executive vice president, said, "The current immigration system responds to the demands of all industries far too slowly, fails to follow visa holders through expiration, and turns away high and low skilled workers far too often. This failure is costing our economy daily and cannot continue. Our coalition is committed to finding a solution that works for everyone."

Folks want 'a wedge issue'

Wasden of the Colorado Business Roundtable acknowledged that immigration reform falls low on the list of priorities for the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress - behind health care reform and overhauling the tax system, at the very least - but said he hopes lawmakers on the left and the right can surmount stumbling blocks that have arisen over the years.

"When we talk about significant, substantive reform, let's get a system that's practical, that works for business," he said. "We don't have that type of system - it's not demand-based. We set up quotas, quotas that were set 35 years ago, that aren't reflective of the workforce and market demands. We are trying to advocate for some simple, common-sense reforms."

Wasden told Colorado Politics he has grown frustrated with the inability of his fellow Republicans to grapple with the issue.

"It feels like we just keep going back to the well time after time," he said. "There are certain folks who continue to want this to be a wedge issue and create divisiveness. If the Republicans are truly going to get past the rhetoric and be the party of business, we need to sit down and create a policy."

Talbott said he's optimistic that national leaders will finally sit down and come up with a solution. He recalled the decision he made to switch his orchards from nearly all apples a few decades ago to the peach-heavy mix he grows these days. Giant growers in a handful of states were gobbling up the apple market, and eventually they took it all away from smaller orchards like Talbott Mountain Gold. "We were 90-percent apples in 1986," he said, "but we don't grow apples anymore. That wasn't a labor problem, it was a market problem.

"I think they'll fix the immigration system eventually - because they have to. We hung onto apples a lot longer than we should have. I kept saying, 'This is unsustainable, (but) we'll outlast the cycle.' But then I realized the fundamentals have changed, this isn't a cycle, the market is gone. We got a lot more beat up than we should have by sticking with it so long.

"The direction we're going is not sustainable as a country. I just hope we don't go too long before people realize we're going to have to have some help, or we're not farming here anymore. I've gotta believe the pendulum is coming back and people will say, 'You know what, we're going to grow food in the United States, and we've got to do what we need to do to make that happen.'"

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