CAPITAL REGION — Even as federal agents resume raids in Saratoga Springs, foreign workers are doing essential work picking fruit in orchards around the Capital Region.
Workers, many of them from Jamaica, are picking apples after coming to New York under the H-2A visa program, which allows foreign workers into the country to do hard work like fruit picking, if the farmers can prove that Americans aren't available to do it.
Often, the same workers — and sometimes their families — return to specific orchards year after year, willing to work the long hours to get the fruit off the trees and into storage or store displays. The orchard owners pay for worker transportation, housing and meals — up to $1,000 per week for a picking season as short as six weeks.
"The clock is ticking with the fruit on the trees," said Jeremy Knight, whose family owns Knight Orchards on Goode Street in Burnt Hills. "They're great workers and everything. It's a necessity. We need immigration reform, but this program works for us."
Orchard owners interviewed by The Daily Gazette on Wednesday said they aren't experiencing a shortage of foreign workers this year, despite fears among some local officials that the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration could hurt local businesses.
Meeting with farm groups in April, President Donald Trump said it wasn't his intention to target foreign agricultural workers in his immigration crackdown, despite his strong views on immigration issues.
The New York Apple Association, meanwhile, is predicting a solid apple crop: about 28 million cartons, or 1.1 billion pounds, which is around the historic average. And the apple quality will be good.
"The state has generally had favorable weather for bloom and during the growing season," the association said in a forecast released Monday. New York grows the most apples of any state east of the Mississippi.
"The crop is a little short out west, but in our area it is looking pretty good. It is bountiful," said Peter Ten Eyck, the third-generation owner of Indian Ladder Farms in Altamont.
Ten Eyck said he relies on about 10 foreign workers, mostly Jamaican, to pick most of his apples, though the farm also offers public pick-your-own apples. The foreign workers come after he has advertised for American workers, though there are few, if any American, takers. It's hard work, and experience helps. A good picker can pick 100 bushels per day while earning more than $12 per hour.
"You have to be willing to work long hours, have average or above IQ and be in good physical shape," Ten Eyck said. "Americans really aren't in good physical shape."
"It's hard work; I'm not going to deny that," acknowledged Knight, whose orchard is also multi-generational and family-owned.
The H-2A temporary agricultural visa program, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring foreign workers to the U.S., though not as permanent immigrants. The program has been in place since 1986. It accounts for only about 10 percent of the estimated 1.3 million farmworkers in the country, according to government data. In 2016, the government granted 134,000 H-2A visas, according to the Department of Labor.
The New York Farm Bureau said it was unaware of any worker shortages this year, though a spokesman said the H-2A system isn't without flaws. Sometimes visas are delayed and workers arrive late, as happened in some cases in 2016.
"It is a costly and cumbersome program, but it typically provides growers with the labor that they apply for," Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman said.
Labor and farm justice advocates criticize the program as exploitative of foreign workers who sometimes must pay fees to get work, though that practice is illegal.
The organization Farmworker Justice said the H-2A system is "inherently flawed and leads to a system that it is rife with abuse of both foreign and domestic workers."
Nate Darrow, who owns Saratoga Apple in Schuylerville and has five Jamaican workers picking apples on his farm, said the temporary labor is essential to his year-round business of providing fresh apples to stores and markets.
"Some people think no foreign workers should be allowed into the country, which is not realistic," Darrow said. "The fruit-growing community in the Northeast considers the H-2A agricultural worker program to be essential to getting these high-value crops harvested in an orderly fashion."
In January, North Country U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, introduced legislation that would transfer H-2A program oversight from the Department of Labor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and address a major criticism of the system: that it doesn't do much for dairy and other farmers who need foreign-born workers on a continual basis, not just temporarily for harvests.
“When I travel the district speaking with our farmers, I often hear about how unnecessary delays in worker visas lead to difficulty meeting production goals," Stefanik said at the time. "This common-sense legislation simply puts the H-2A agricultural visa program in the hands of those who best understand the specific needs of our farms.”
The legislation, the Family Farm Relief Act, was referred to the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee, which has a subcommittee on immigration issues. It remains there.
"Congresswoman Stefanik continues to work to gain support from her colleagues on this legislation and yesterday was pleased to gain the support of fellow New Yorker Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning)," Stefanik spokesman Tom Fanagin said Wednesday. "She would like to continue to build momentum, move it through the committee process and to the House floor for a vote."
While foreign workers are necessary, Ten Eyck said he's most pleased when the public comes to an orchard and people pick their own apples, so that they become more aware of where their food comes from.
"As Americans, we have to get over the idea that we just wave money in the air and somebody will bring us food," Ten Eyck said.