Labor shortage could mean food goes to waste on NJ farms
TRENTON – The labor crunch is pinching New Jersey farms, some of which are already on the cusp on having to let food go to waste in their fields.
Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher, in testimony before the Assembly Budget Committee, said he’s hearing from farmers who have had trouble finding enough workers for this growing season.
“They’re not getting the help they need,” Fisher said. “And in fact, for instance yesterday I was on a farm where the farmer has asparagus and he’s basically not going to be able to get it cut. Because he doesn’t have enough workers. He can’t attract enough workers. He’s tried desperately.”
“It’s not unlike what you’re hearing in the restaurant trades – I mean, everywhere,” he said. “It’s really a very difficult issue. Landscaping, once again, they can’t get enough help. Very, very troubling right now.”
Fisher had been asked about the issue by Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester. The two were district-mate when Fisher served in the Assembly.
“If you’ve got a farmer with asparagus in the field, can’t get it out, there’s only – that stuff doesn’t sit around and wait. So what happens?” Burzichelli said.
“Goes to waste,” said Fisher. “Gets plowed under or there might be a gleaning operation. We might be able to have that farm be able to arrange for some gleaning. But it doesn’t help the farm’s bottom line. It’s just an act of generosity.”
New Jersey ranks fourth nationally in asparagus production, though it dropped 18% between 2018 and 2020. It was grown on 2,000 acres in the state, with production valued at nearly $15 million.
“Asparagus is reoccurring,” Burzichelli said. “Once the crop starts to come, you cut it and you’re back in the field. You get to cut it again. So, the loss here is in waves. It’s not just one. You don’t just pick asparagus one time.”
As of March, New Jersey had regained just 54% of the jobs lost last March and April at the start of the pandemic and had a 7.7% unemployment rate. Employers have said people aren’t willing to work and would rather collect their state unemployment benefits and an extra $300 a week in federal aid.
When Burzichelli asked what the issues are and whether there’s a shortage of immigrant farm laborers, Fisher said it would take a whole hearing to explore all the reasons.
“They say because some of the incentives that are being paid right now, the differential is not great enough to induce someone to be able to go onto a farm to pick or cut,” Fisher said.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.