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Pennsylvania Farmers Fear Labor Shortage Amid Immigration Fears

  • Bill Rodgers

The streets of tiny York Springs, Pennsylvania, are often empty these days.

“For Rent” signs are posted in front of some of the houses, a mix of brick and clapboard structures, where a few years ago, residents say, there was no rental housing to be had.

"Before it was different; it was more relaxed. People would go out and walk around," a former fruit picker, who called himself Arturo, lamented in Spanish. "Today … people are in hiding."

'For Rent' signs have started appearing in York Springs, PA, as some Hispanic immigrants move away. (M. Kornely/VOA)
'For Rent' signs have started appearing in York Springs, PA, as some Hispanic immigrants move away. (M. Kornely/VOA)

Many residents attribute the climate of fear in York Springs to the election of President Donald Trump, who has vowed to take a tough stance toward illegal immigration.

Located near Pennsylvania’s southern border in Adams County, York Springs’ population of 800 is 42 percent Hispanic, mainly from Mexico.

Recent raids have reinforced the fear, causing some to stay indoors and others to quit their jobs and move away.


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told VOA that its agents detained 15 people in York Springs from January through March. Of these, four had criminal records, four were re-entry cases, and one was a visa overstay. The rest were simply undocumented.

There are reports that more sweeps have taken place since March.

Many of York Springs' residents work in nearby orchards or the many fruit processing and packing plants in the area, and their fear may have economic consequences, especially for the fall harvest.

Hollabaugh Brothers

The Hollabaugh Brothers family farm has been raising fruits and vegetables in Adams County for 61 years. Three generations of family members run the operation.

But they could not do it without the help of immigrant labor to tend fields, prune trees, and harvest fruit and specialty crops like asparagus and blackberries – hard work few Americans want to do.

The farm hires immigrants who present the requisite documents, Kay Hollabaugh says, and they pay taxes.

But her workers are running scared.

"The message that is going out about the raids is sending a ripple through the immigrant workforce," she says.

Without them, Kay Hollabaugh says, "It will be the end of our business. Seventy-five people will not have a job, and my family,[which] has been here over 60 years, will lose this."

Main Street in York Springs, PA, is often empty of pedestrians in a climate of deportation fear. (M. Kornely/VOA)
Main Street in York Springs, PA, is often empty of pedestrians in a climate of deportation fear. (M. Kornely/VOA)

Rice Fruit

At harvest time, the Rice Fruit Co. employs about 200 people to pack apples, peaches and nectarines, which are then shipped mainly to states along the Eastern seaboard, but also exported to Central America and the Caribbean. During the rest of the year, the company has about 100 workers working in its packing operation – most of them Hispanic.

David Rice, who represents the third generation to run the 100-year-old firm, says the prospect that he will not be able to find enough workers at harvest time keeps him up at night.

"We can’t run an operation here if the fruit doesn’t get harvested," he says. "And many of our workers are an itinerant population that comes in briefly for the harvest. And to the extent that that flow is constricted, the downstream ramifications will be huge in that we would not be able to get the fruit harvested that we depend on for filling our storage bins in the fall and then packing out to our customers."

Rice goes on to say he's looking at various options if there's a labor shortage, including further automating his apple-packing assembly line and downsizing his workforce. A dramatic reduction in farmworkers, he warns, will have dire consequences for everyone.

"It would not only affect the price of food," he says. "But it would affect so many local economies in terms of the work force and the money they spend and the companies they work for, for their basic viability."

Workers, many of them immigrants, sort apples at the Rice Fruit Company, the largest apple-packing facility in the Eastern U.S. (M. Kornely/VOA)
Workers, many of them immigrants, sort apples at the Rice Fruit Company, the largest apple-packing facility in the Eastern U.S. (M. Kornely/VOA)

Feeding the nation

The Adams County fruit industry generates $580 million a year, according to one study, and almost 20,000 jobs.

Overall, U.S. agriculture contributes a trillion dollars to the country's gross domestic product (GDP) – dollars that are heavily dependent on immigrant labor.

Craig Regelbrugge, a senior vice president at Americanhort, which represents the nursery industry that supplies orchards with trees, says estimates based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data are that at least half the agricultural workforce is unauthorized to be in the U.S. legally.

Advocates of aggressive immigration enforcement argue that America's farms will not disappear if large numbers of illegal immigrants are deported; crops will continue to be grown and harvested. But those who produce specialty crops, like apples and other fruits and vegetables, would be seriously hurt, according to Regelbrugge.

"Hand labor is most associated with speciality crops, nursery crops, as well as dairy," he points out. "What’s important about the specialty crops is that they are of much higher value and the on-farm payroll creates a much bigger footprint in terms of taxes paid and in terms of goods and services consumed."

President Trump has assured a group of farmers he will seek to prevent his tough immigration policy from harming U.S. agriculture, Reuters news agency reports after interviewing participants in last month's meeting, Trump reportedly said he does not want to create labor problems and would look into expanding a legal visa program that brings in temporary farm workers.

However, for Kay Hollabaugh and many others in the Adams County fruit industry, the answer is for Congress to reform immigration laws and grant some kind of legal status to immigrant farmworkers. "If we could simply stop producing food for a month, I think perhaps that would make some bells go off in Congress," she says.

"Like, 'oh my gosh, we really have a problem here; we need to address this problem,' because it is these fantastic immigrant laborers who are feeding our nation."

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