Cathy and Jim Zappala's farm has been the target of immigration authorities twice in the last six months. Illegal immigrant workers have been removed and in some cases, reportedly, deported. Now many other workers are too scared to return to work. "The other laborers are petrified," Cathy says. "Because they won't even come near us right now… they are scared to death – and they will keep a super, super low-profile wherever they go," she continues.
The Zappalas are faced with the reality that they may well not have enough temporary workers to get their crop harvested this year. It could put them out of business.
The Zappala's prize "Empire Sweet Onions" are picked and packaged by hand. Machine harvesting them can bruise them and cut the price they can get for the onions. After several tough years of flooding and bad weather, they're worried that their farm - in the family since 1927 - may not be able to stay in business.
Cathy Zappala said to me that she hoped that telling her story would shine a light on their situation. They're desperate to find a viable workforce and do not want to hire illegal workers. However, Cathy and her husband Jim say that it is tough to find Americans who are willing to do this kind of work. "We're not looking for a workforce that we're giving legal amnesty to or citizenship to," Jim Zappala says. "We're looking for a viable workforce that is allowed to work in agriculture… that can't be that difficult to produce – it can't be."
Allowing us to videotape at her farm puts the Zappala's in the spotlight. "We're really putting our necks on the line, here", Cathy wrote to me in an email. The Zappala's hope the story will give a voice to the farmers who lobbying for a guest-worker program or an alternative that will let their business stay afloat.
This story came together after I had been reading about the bumper apple harvest in New York State this year. Farmers have been lucky to get great weather for apple growing and some three billion apples need to be picked in just a ten-week long harvest. I thought it was interesting that we think of the "pick your own" apple harvest as the quintessential American fall tradition... but that it is 8,000 temporary workers that step in to do the "real" work - after the "pick your own" crowd goes home.
I set out to find an apple grower who would let me come on their farm and would talk about the troubles they farmers face in trying to find enough labor to pick the crops. Most every grower I reached on the telephone said they wouldn't speak though most admitted there were problems trying to find enough workers.
Mike Biltonen at Stone Ridge Orchard was willing to be candid about the challenges growers face. This harvest, Biltonen's orchard is in good shape. He has been able to find enough temporary workers to pick the apples. He makes every effort (like the Zappala's) to make sure his workforce is legal. Biltonen takes the social secruity numbers of workers and fills out paperwork which he submits to the government. Both growers we interviewed told us that legally they can't question the documents provided by workers as long as they appear valid.
"We pride ourselves on hiring as much local labor as we can," Biltonen says. "But pretty much our local businesses are already overwhelmed trying to find help – that there is not a ready pool of people to pull from."
But with a Federal crackdown on those employing illegal immigrants and with many temporary workers being forced to leave the U-S, Biltonen sees uncertainty ahead, "I don't have to look too far down the road to sense that threat… every year it gets a little bit more difficult to get the labor that we need – to get the quality of labor we need."