Reporter Paul Vitello talked to Pennsylvania's biggest tomato grower, who won't be planting any this year because of uncertainly over illegal immigration and the possible loss of migrant workers he relies on to harvest the crop,for "Immigration Issues End a Grower's Season." (The Philadelphia Enquirer talked to the very same farmer back on March 25.)
As in politics, timing is everything in tomatoes.
Finding and keeping the field hands who can pick 10,000 tomatoes a day during the hot months of August and September is no less a test of organizational traction than any get-out-the-vote drive.
For 35 years, Keith Eckel, 61, one of the largest tomato growers in the Northeast, had the workers and the timing down to a T: seven weeks, 120 men, 125 trailer loads of tomatoes picked, packed and shipped.
This year, however, the new politics of immigration - very much on the mind of many of Pennsylvania's voters, even if overlooked by the presidential candidates campaigning in this state and around the nation - has put him out of business.
Vitello is over-dramatizing. Eckel has not been "put out" of the farming business; he's taken himself out of the tomato-growing business and apparently replaced his usual tomato crop with more of other, less labor-intensive crops.
State, local and federal crackdowns on illegal immigration have broken his supply chain of laborers. Most of those were Hispanic men who had come every year for decades, and whose immigration status Mr. Eckel recorded with the documents they provided to him. He kept them all in the file cabinets at his neat farm office - the Migrant Seasonal Farm Worker Protection Act forms, the Labor Department's I-9 forms, the H-2A agricultural visa privilege forms - though he knew that, for the most part, it was a charade.
This is the crux of a tense, if largely unspoken, conflict between politics and reality in a state with 40,000 commercial farms. On many of those farms, crops requiring hand-picking are either not being put in this year, or are being planted by farmers who cannot be sure they will have the workers to harvest them, farm experts say.
Yet, in more than a half dozen state legislative races, getting tough on illegal immigration has become the premier issue in this state, as it has in many others.
Neither the two Democratic presidential candidates nor the presumptive Republican presidential nominee have spotlighted the pressure brought on farmers around the country by the newly energized political consensus against illegal immigration.
But note that no tomatoes are rotting in the fields in this story. Eckel has just decided to plant another, less labor-intensive crop : "45 acres of sweet corn, and 1,200 acres of corn for grain." Is this a tragedy, or a surprisingly painless transition away from a business that used illegal labor to a business that uses legal labor? We will buy fewer Pennsylvania tomatoes and more Pennsylvania corn.
Kaus linked to an argument from Tom Bevan at Real Clear Politics:
We always hear the argument that immigrants do labor that Americans aren't willing to do, and picking tomatoes would certainly seem to fall into that category. But $16.59 an hour seems like a pretty decent average wage, and so the question is whether in a place like Scranton - a metro area with more than 600,000 people and an unemployment rate that jumped seven tenths of a percent in December and is above both the state and national average - Eckel truly cannot find a hundred and eighty legal US citizens who want to make, on average, $16.59 an hour.