Help wanted 

With Colorado farms short on migrant workers, local lawmakers start looking for solutions

click to enlarge Workers at Big Valley sometimes cut sod for 16-hour - shifts on hot summer days. - PETER FECTEAU
  • Peter Fecteau
  • Workers at Big Valley sometimes cut sod for 16-hour shifts on hot summer days.

The sod-cutting crew at Big Valley Sod Farms in Ellicott can fill up to 10 semi trailers with rolled-up sod six or seven days a week. It's a backbreaking job, at times requiring 16-hour days to fill large orders.

Locals sometimes try their hand in the fields, says Denise King, the farm's office manager. But most quickly wither under the unyielding sun and seek work involving air conditioning and perhaps a comfy desk chair.

"I think we have a lazy American working society," King says.

Like many Colorado agricultural businesses, Big Valley relies on immigrant workers to get the job done. But a year after new state laws went into effect that deal harshly with illegal workers and employers who hire them, many farmers say migrant workers are skipping the state, whether they're legal or not.

"We have farmers who need workers, and they have none," says Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan. "If we don't have any help in our fields, we're not going to have any agriculture."

Looper is looking for a way to set up a two-year pilot program that would simplify the process for Colorado farmers to get foreign workers. It could establish one or more offices south of the border to help channel workers to the farms where they're needed. While she's still working out details of the proposal, she says it would be similar to Canada's temporary worker program.

"At the end of the day, this is a workforce, labor issue," Looper says.

The reports of a worker shortage are tied to a wide-ranging package of immigration laws passed by state legislators in a special session last summer. One law requires companies to verify their workers are in the country legally, while another sets new identification rules designed to keep people who are in the country illegally from obtaining many government services.

For Big Valley, the laws meant a change, if not a worker shortage. The farm started the process last October of applying for workers through the federal H-2A program, King says. Though the farm got only six of the 10 workers it asked for, she says, the effort paid off and the summer has gone well.

Down in Rocky Ford, Michael Hirakata says Hirakata Farms has cut production on the 800-acre farm by about 30 percent and is making do with about half the workers it had last year. Instead of growing labor-intensive crops like cantaloupes and watermelons, the farm is shifting toward corn, wheat and alfalfa.

With produce, Hirakata says, it's "getting to the point where it's not worth doing anymore."

Hirakata also applied for H-2A workers, preferring the hours of paperwork and phone calls to the possibility of hiring a worker with fake documents. That kind of error could cost thousands in fines, even for a first infraction.

"They expect us to police the deal," Hirakata says. "We're not trained to do that."

State Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, calls Looper's plan "terrific" but notes that it could be difficult to fund. An easier step, he says, would be finding a way to get applications for workers processed more quickly.

But getting anything done to ease the worker shortage during the coming election year could be a challenge, Tapia says, and that could be a problem for some farmers.

"We're going to have land that goes unproductive," he says.



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