BY JAMES HAGGERTY
The Citizens Voice
NEWTON TWP. — A burning political issue will change the landscape at Keith Eckel’s farm.
“Today is a sad day for us because we’re closing on a segment of our business that we love,” Eckel said Monday during a press conference in a tomato packing house at his Schultzville farm. “We just cannot afford to take that risk any more.”
Eckel, 61, who owns Fred W. Eckel Sons Farms, cited failure of federal immigration reform and a lack of workers as he announced he will not put 2.3 million tomato plants on 340 acres of his 1,400-acre operation in Lackawanna, Luzerne and Wyoming counties.
The farm, Pennsylvania’s largest source of fresh market tomatoes, produced 2,500 tons of the fruit annually and has relied on migrant workers to bring in the crop since 1970.
“They come here to do a job that nobody else will do in this country,” Eckel said. “The system to provide our labor is broken.”
Eckel’s departure from the tomato field illustrates the agricultural impact from stepped-up immigration enforcement and its potential effect on U.S. food production. It will reduce the farm’s anticipated revenue to about $750,000 from $2.2 million in 2007.
Eckel usually relied on about 125 documented immigrants to live at his farm for a six-week summer period to gather tomatoes that are shipped to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the East. He was able to attract only about 75 last summer, and his labor contractor told him it would be difficult to provide enough manpower to harvest this year’s crop.
Fewer migrants will cross state lines to work because of fear, Eckel said, and he worried that an immigration raid could shut down tomato harvesting at its peak.
“We would end up with $1.5 (million) to $2 million (invested) on the ground that we don’t know that we can pick up,” Eckel said.
Local workers refuse to do the work, even though tomato pickers at the farm last summer earned an average of $16.59 per hour, Eckel said.
Federal lawmakers have battled over immigration enforcement since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Senate rejected a 2006 proposal by President Bush to allow some undocumented “guest workers” to gain permission to work legally in the United States, and the issue has become a political stalemate.
Meanwhile, farmers nationwide who rely on migrants face labor shortages, said Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, a Washington, D.C., agricultural lobbying group that favors a “guest worker” program.
“We need some kind of system that will allow growers like Keith Eckel to produce their crop and harvest it and market it, and currently we don’t have it,” Schlegel said. “It sort of encapsulates the pressures that people feel.”
The labor issue could force more farmers out of business and cede more food production to foreign countries with fewer food quality and environmental standards.
“The fear that we all have is that the food is going to be grown outside the United States,” Schlegel said. “If we can’t solve our labor issues, we can lose between $5 (billion) to $9 billion in annual production alone.”
Eckel also will not plant pumpkins this year, but will grow 45 acres of sweet corn and increase feed corn planting to 1,200 acres from 700 acres. Employment at the farm will drop to five from 81, he said, and the farm’s payroll will decrease by $500,000 from $741,000 in 2007.
Wholesalers who distributed tomatoes from the farm said they will find other sources, but will miss the price advantages and convenience of dealing with Eckel.
“It is going to force us to take our business out of state,” said Greg Pallman, president of Summit Harvest Inc., a Clarks Summit tomato wholesaler, who accompanied Eckel at the news conference. “We’ll feel that hit, but it’s not going to take us out of business.”
Eckel said he may return to tomato farming, but only if the immigration issue is settled.
“I won’t rule out going back in this business if we resolve this issue, but not this year,” he said.