While the labor situation has eased a bit since 2011, “we continue to see shortages at the farm level. It’s hard to put a number on what kind of losses we’ve sustained because there are so many issues. For example, this year we’ve had a very rainy season – the rainiest summer I’ve seen – and there have been a lot of quality issues, a lot of fruit that wasn’t picked. … If we’d have had (workers) here in the correct numbers and at the right time, we could have done a lot better.”

Berry also pushed against the perception that the farm workforce is unskilled. “This is very difficult work. It’s very skilled work. I think the second-generation immigrants as well as (U.S.) citizens are not seeing that work as desirable. I feel the guest-worker program is extremely important for us in the produce industry.”

He elaborated further: “A lot of people look at it as a dirty, back-breaking job. That anyone can get out there and grunt their way through it. But that really isn’t the case. It actually takes skill and you can’t pull anyone who needs a job off the street to do it. We’ve tried some of that.”

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 The disparity between skilled and unskilled workers became obvious, said Berry, when in 2011 his operation advertised for blueberry pickers through the Department of Labor. “We got folks to come in here, offered them sign-up bonuses and put them in the field. … They were paid by their production, piece-work. An unskilled worker would pick $2 or $3 worth of fruit in an hour. A skilled worker was making $18 to $20 an hour picking the same fruit, in the same field.”

Since the unskilled workers still had to be paid the minimum wage, the cost to Berry was prohibitive. “We’d love to fill the job with American workers but I don’t think that’s a possibility.”

Vilsack warned that an insufficient agricultural workforce has a ripple effect. “Other countries are not standing pat. They aren’t contracting; they’re moving forward. … The result of that is we compromise export markets. This isn’t just about maintaining food security (in the United States) but it’s also about the export opportunities.”

“It’s difficult to put your money on the line when there is uncertainty,” said Berry. “It’s hard to grow our operations and meet the demands of a growing population without the certainty of a skilled workforce.”