Sunday, April 15, 2007

And So It Begins

The Syracuse Post-Standard has a story on the biggest issue facing farmers in Central New York. Skyrocketing land prices? Out of control erosion? Water shortages? Agricultural runoff management?

No, labor.

There's a growing shortage of laborers to work on Central New York farms, a panel of farmers and agriculture experts told U.S. Rep. Michael A. Arcuri.

From that sentence alone you can guess where the discussion is headed.

Increased enforcement of immigration laws hit grape growers hard in 2006, said Tom Macinski, of Standing Stone Vineyards in Seneca County. The enforcement crackdown not only eliminated undocumented workers from the labor pool, he said, but also affected legal migrant workers.

"They heard rumors about upcoming arrests," Macinski said. "They stayed away out of fear, even though their paperwork was entirely proper. . . . That made getting the grape crop in in 2006 much more difficult and also made it more expensive."

Macinski said wages doubled and added about $5,000 to the cost of harvesting grapes at his Lodi vineyard.

The demand for workers exceeded the supply, driving up wages? Say it ain't so!

To steal a metaphor from the programming world, this isn't a bug. It's a feature. A feature that, sadly, isn't having an impact on more of Central New York. As Mr. Macinski points out, totally inadvertently, there isn't a shortage of labor. As soon as he increased the amount of money he was willing to pay workers the magical labor fairy sprinkled his pixie dust and..TADA!...he had the people he needed to harvest his crop.

The one part of the supply/demand dynamic Mr. Macinski does seem to understand is the negative impact on wages created by a flood of workers. And, to him, that's a good thing, because his vineyard is just struggling to stay afloat because of high labor costs.

Hah! Just kidding. From all accounts, his vineyard is wildly successful. An achievement made all the more amazing because Mr. Macinski works full-time for IBM while his wife concentrates on her thriving legal practice. I can only speculate that they aren't working the fields of their own vineyard because they can make more money doing something else.

Funny how that works.

Peter Saltonstall, owner of King Ferry Vineyards, south of Aurora in Cayuga County, said vineyard work is very labor- intensive. Grape vines need to be pruned, grafted, tied up and otherwise maintained.

"All of these jobs require lots of hands for a very short window," he said.

Macinski, Saltonstall and others called for immigration reform, including the H2A guest worker program, which allows farmworkers to enter the country for a specific time.

"One of the factors holding back advancement in our industry is the ability to plant more grapes to get a bigger market share," Macinski said. "You can't plant more grapes unless you have labor.

"What we need is a labor source," he continued. "We need a labor source we can rely upon. We need a legal process which makes it not too difficult for us to apply for it."

Let me translate that last part: "We need a labor source that doesn't cost too much. If only we had huge pool of people willing to work for little or nothing we'd be able to do all kinds of cool things. As it is, we're forced to pay people way too much. Sure, there are enough workers if we jack up the wages, but that isn't very fair to us, is it?"

Surprisingly, an article about the same meeting in the Auburn Citizen has a different take on the situation:

But not all in the audience at the college were sympathetic to the cases made to Arcuri.

“The main issue is the big farmers don't want to do the cost of business, so they want the public to pick up the tab,” said Jeff Polhamus, who owns a small dairy farm in Aurora.

“They should figure that cost into their operation, and if they can't, they should be out of business like the other small farms,” Polhamus added.

Barbara King, of Aurora, said that easing the expense of migrant labor for farmers would burden local taxpayers with the bill for their housing and health care.

“You have to ensure that more people benefit than just special interests,” King said.

That's what the immigration issue really comes down to: helping special interests.