The New York Times' Ode to Illegal Aliens in the Orchards

By David North, September 20, 2009

The New York Times, in an editorial page item on Sunday, describes the use of illegal workers in the ongoing upstate New York apple harvest from the point of view of a poetic apple farmer.

Exploitation of illegal workers, and the exclusion of unemployed legal residents from the harvest, is described thusly: "It was the usual harvest race, under constant threat of disruption from bad weather and the Border Patrol...

"Every apple you eat has been picked by hand, by someone like Tomás, who used to live in a trailer... Not long ago he was picked up."

"No American will do the work, so it goes to Latino immigrants," is how the Times, often the friend of workers, describes the economics of the situation.

It so happens that I did extensive field work on this particular harvest for a long-departed federal agency, the Commission on Agricultural Workers, so I have some first-hand information.

To use the Times' elegiac style, this is the most American, the most pleasant of farm work; yes it is demanding, but one does not spend much time stooping, as the fruit is overhead; the weather is usually pleasant, and one is not straining in the mud to, for example, pick strawberries or cut asparagus.

One works alone and there is none of the pressure one finds in, for instance, the harvest of sweet corn as the tractor pulling the packing platform moves inexorably across the field. If you don't pick the corn fast enough, the boss has to slow the tractor, and your colleagues give you hell (probably in Spanish), as everyone shares in group-piece-rate system.

Disclosure: I worked for the U.S. Department of Labor in the 1960s, as an assistant for farm labor to then Secretary Willard Wirtz, probably the last cabinet officer to spend a great deal of time on this issue. He always said that if there is a labor shortage, you can do one of two things: adjust the wages, or adjust the labor supply.

Without significant pressure from the government to raise wages, the growers have always been free to adjust the work force, not the wages on offer. As a result for generations the apple harvest has been accomplished, in New York, by a combination of short-term Jamaican contract workers, i.e. legal aliens, and by illegal aliens, mostly from Mexico. Many growers actively prefer the illegals, on the grounds that they are cheaper than the Jamaicans and more docile than citizens.

New York apples are selling in the Virginia supermarkets today for $1.79 to $1.99 a pound; the prevailing piece rate for picking fresh market applies this season is less than two cents a pound (or 75 cents for a 42-lb bushel). Workers picking apples for cider or applesauce get even less.

Were the piece rate to be four cents a pound, and were the Border Patrol to make a serious, well-publicized effort to remove illegals from the orchards, growers would be forced -- grumbling every step of the way -- to hire the legal workers they need. And, as a result, thousands of legal up-state New York workers would get some short-term relief from unemployment.

The Times, however, won't tell you that.