Immigration reform is a complicated and emotional issue. As a result, very little progress has been made dealing with the challenges faced in farming. While only 2 percent of the population of America works in agriculture, we all are dependent on the high quality and safe food this industry provides.
Here at Eckert Orchards, migrant labor has been the source for picking, pruning and thinning fruit since the Great Depression. But this workforce represents a very small part of the employee base working in our business. Eckert's employs approximately 200 full-time and 300 seasonal employees. Of this total workforce, we need approximately 30 migrant workers.
Most of our seasonal workforce is made up of high school and college kids or retirees. We are very proud of the fact that literally thousands of people living in our community had their first or last job at Eckert's.
That said, the migrant worker's role is critical to our success. The work they do is not only physically demanding, it is also skilled horticultural work. Most of the migrant workers working at Eckert's have been with us for five or more years. They love what they do and take pride in doing it well. Without this workforce, Eckert's would not be able to exist in the form it is today.
Currently, there is estimated to be 2 million workers in the agricultural industry. Most of this workforce is suspected to be living in the U.S. illegally. Here at Eckert's, we use a program called H2A. This is a federal government program designed to allow farm employers to recruit migrant workers and have them work in America legally for up to 10 months before returning to their home country.
This year only 80,000 migrant workers came to the U.S. on these visas and the system was challenged to process that many. Our workers have been delayed up to two weeks getting through the process.
This can be devastating if it happens during harvest because the fruit will not wait for us, it will fall on the ground. If all farmers used this visa program, the system would fall apart and farmers would be left without workers to harvest their crops.
Uncertainty is having a negative effect on our fruit and vegetable industry. Large growers are starting to move their production to Mexico to be assured they will have a workforce to take care of their crops. This could jeopardize food safety due to the lack of regulation and oversight in other countries. It also creates challenging competition for growers remaining in the U.S. If peaches can be produced more cost effectively in the mountains of Mexico and sold at a lower price here in Belleville, then that forces prices down for all the farmers in our area. Ultimately it could force growers out of business.
We are also dealing with a large population of undocumented people in our country. Last estimates were 12 million people are living in the shadows because they are here illegally. Many of these people are here by no fault of their own. They were brought here as children when their parents came looking for a better life for their family.
Removing 12 million people back to their home country is an impossible option. We need to find a rational solution for them to assimilate into our society. Doing nothing keeps these folks living in uncertainty and constantly on the brink. This lifestyle does not create an environment for them to educate their children and improve our country. Remember, we were all immigrants at some point and it was the assimilation of ideas and cultures that created this great country.
Immigration reform has been a discussion in Congress for 10 years. Now is the time for action.
Encourage our representatives to take up legislation in the House of Representatives. We need a secure border, a secure workforce in agriculture and fair treatment of those living in the shadows.
Chris Eckert is president of Eckert's Country Store and Farms in Belleville.