Saturday, December 9

South Florida farmer labor shortage likely to cause higher prices, less produce

With September comes the time for many farmers in Florida to start prepping their soil for seed.

Yet agricultural companies across our southeast coast are now struggling to keep up with production.

Eric Bartl, manager of Gulf Kist Sod in Vero Beach, said he’s dealt with a dwindling supply of laborers for several years. Now, that shortage has become crippling, made worse in part by Senate Bill 1718, which cracks down on the hiring of undocumented workers.

The bill took effect in July.

“Its definitely getting harder and harder to find new employees,” Bartl said.

Bartl said at one point, Gulf Kist Sod employed 24 workers to cover its 1,200 acres. Now, they’re down to 16.

“They’re just trying to do it all,” Bartl said of his current employees.

Gulf Kist Sod is E-verified, meaning they only hire workers able to prove their eligibility to work in the U.S., but with so many companies seeing those who are undocumented leave, Bartl said the worker pool for everyone is stretched thin.

Two of his sod sorters are now collecting cobwebs with no hands to run it.

“The competition for labor is far more. I mean weve more than doubled the pay and are just trying to find manual stackers, guys willing to do it,” Bartl said. “We are limited financially because we can only cut 200 pallets a day instead of four or five hundred.”

As the company sells less sod and makes less revenue, the money going out is going up thanks to inflation and increases in salaries to stay competitive.

“Keep driving (salaries) up until you’re like, ‘Whoa, what are you going to do,'” Bartl said. “I mean, fertilizer has literally doubled.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 37% of Florida’s farm workers are undocumented, and the Farmworker Association of Florida said most of them are gone.

“They said, were not returning, were not going back to Florida,” Yvette Cruz, communications coordinator for the FAF, said. “At every corner of every establishment, you see ‘There’s work,’ ‘Hay trabajo.'”

Those establishments include nurseries and produce farms, who now need to start prepping their soil.

“We are also going to see a shortage of crops, a lot of tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, green beans,” Cruz said.

The financial toll on farmers is now likely going to trickle down to the average consumer. With less supply will come higher prices for Florida-grown produce.

“It affects us all,” Cruz said.

For Bartl, who’s grown up in the farming industry, perhaps worse than the crippling costs is the uncertainty that lies ahead. Yet Bartl said the only option is to plow through it.

“Maybe more manual labor, maybe more work for us. I don’t know what well do,” Bartl said.

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