Illegal Immgrants Might Be Undocumented, But They're Not Unskilled

My family has long been making pies and jam out of the divine purple raspberry, a cross between the better known red and black raspberry families.  The purple raspberry is a delectable mixture of tart and sweet, and purple raspberry pie is literally my favorite food in the world.  If I had to pick one thing to live on for the rest of my life, that would be it.

Unfortunately, the purple raspberry has a lot of drawbacks for commercial farmers.  Its season is very short--barely a couple of weeks--and it is absurdly delicate, meaning that it simply won't survive packing and shipping.  The only option is to grow it yourself, or find a local grower who sells them the day they're picked.

My grandfather used to grow them, but since he died in 2004, our supply has been spotty.  Luckily for me, a kind reader heard of my need, and sent me the name of a farm in Maryland where you can pick your own.  My mother, sister and I drove out at the crack of dawn this weekend to get us some fruit.

My mother is an experienced picker, having spent childhood, and much of her adulthood, in the gardens of parents and relatives.  I am semi-skilled, having been fairly regularly trucked out to Grandpa's garden during the July picking season.  My sister, however, was a novice.  This experience gave me pause to reflect on illegal immigrants who pick crops.

While I was on vacation, Adam Ozimek wrote a great post about Georgia's tough new immigration laws, which seem to have had the unintended consequences of ensuring that no pickers showed up to work the Georgia harvest season.  A lot of commenters--on the post, and elsewhere--suggested alternative labor pools that could be tapped at higher wages: criminals on probation, teenagers bussed from the cities, people on unemployment.  Adam pointed out the obvious problem with this theory: Georgia farmers have a low-margin good, and they are competing in a nearly perfectly competitive market with farmers from other states who have cheaper labor.  That means that they can't raise their prices to compensate, and they don't have much profit margin to lose.  It may well make more economic sense for them to let the crops rot.

But there's another problem with this, which my mother and I discussed: picking is difficult work.  I don't mean that it's merely physically hard, though it is that--my hamstrings were twitching for days from all the stooping.  But picking is also a skill.  My mother, who left town when she was nineteen, is not as good at it as her sister, who still lives there.  And neither of them were as good as her parents' generation, who had all grown up on working farms.  My Great Aunt Dorothy, who farmed well into her eighties, was the fastest.

Picking needs to be fast and thorough.  It also requires judgment.  Purple raspberries, for example, need to be picked when they are shiny, but not too red.  When they are red, they will not make good pie no matter how much sugar you add: the fruit is hard and the flavor has not developed.  When they are dull, they have been on the bush too long.  Not only do they taste kind of funny, but once picked, they will mold within a few hours, contaminating all the fruit in their container.

Most fruit is not quite that fussy.  Nonetheless, most fruits and vegetables require surprisingly skilled handling (which is why they still use pickers, instead of machines).  Bad picking can easily destroy the profit margin on your crop, costing you more than you gain.  And the signs of bad picking were all over the place we went.  Much fruit had been picked too early, because that was when they more closely resembled the red raspberries people were familiar with.  And an enormous amount had been left on the bush because it was inconveniently close to the ground, or tucked under leaves, or on the far side of the bush.  People had concentrated their efforts on the nearest and farthest rows, leaving a lot of fruit to rot in the middle of the field.

Now, of course, one presumes that even unskilled pickers who were being paid would do a better job than people out their weekending with their kids . . . but I had a pretty strong incentive to pick well, as did many of the people around us, who were clearly there gathering material for pies and jam.  I assume the people who came before us were also very interested in getting their hands on some fruit.  Nonetheless, by my estimate, about 2/3 of the crop was wasted, one way or another.

The illegal immigrants who harvest our crops have grown up doing this, learning the way my grandparents did. There are almost no Americans left who have either the painfully developed musculature or the painstakingly acquired knowledge to rapidly harvest a field without damaging the crop.  And acquiring those skills is tricky, because the picking season for any one crop is very short . . . after which, it's time to start picking another crop that you don't know how to handle. And it's best done in a group of people who know what they're doing, not in a clueless mob that just got dumped in the fields for the first time. Of course, you can stretch this period out by following the crop from south to north . . . but most Americans do not want to live as migrant laborers, moving on every week or so and working through the weekend as long as the sun shines.

To my mind, it's a good thing that we no longer have much skilled farm labor in our citizenry: Americans don't have these skills because they have better alternatives.  They don't migrate with the crops because they have better options that let them stay put.

But really, it doesn't matter whether it's good or not.  The people who blithely assert that we could always get Americans to do this job by paying a higher way are wildly underestimating what's involved in becoming a skilled picker.  It is not something you learn to do of an afternoon.  If we shut out the immigrants, we will see a lot more ruined crops.