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Major Pa. tomato producer quits, blames Congress

CLARKS SUMMIT, Pa. - Keith Eckel, the largest producer of fresh market tomatoes in Pennsylvania, is getting out of the business.

CLARKS SUMMIT, Pa. - Keith Eckel, the largest producer of fresh market tomatoes in Pennsylvania, is getting out of the business.

Fearing that the labor needed to harvest his tomatoes won't be there when he needs it, Eckel announced yesterday that after decades of growing tomatoes, he was calling it quits.

He placed the blame squarely at the feet of Congress and its failure to enact what he called a meaningful immigration reform measure.

"The system is broken," Eckel said before a crowd of neighbors, employees and news media gathered in the packing house at his farm near Scranton.

"It's a sad day," he said. "We're closing a part of our business that we really love."

Eckel's problems are echoed coast to coast by farmers who are reliant on foreign farm workers allowed into the country each year to plant, pick and package crops.

Eckel said the impact of the government's increased vigilance on illegal immigration and the lack of action on an immigration reform bill has sown doubt among farmers that they will be able to count on a predictable and sufficient work force.

The push for immigration reform has stalled in Congress and little action is expected during the rest of this election year. The problem can be solved if Congress would pass a viable and accessible guest-worker program, Eckel said. Otherwise, he and other farmers say they are not going to take the risk of planting crops they can't harvest for lack of a workforce. Eckels estimated the value of his tomato crop at $1.5 million to $2 million.

"It is a real concern, and we are disappointed that Congress has failed to act," said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. "Ultimately, consumers will feel this."

Eckel warned that unless the issue was resolved, it would eventually drive the fresh fruit and vegetable industry offshore, causing an inevitable rise in food prices.

Last year, Eckel employed 180 people, but this spring, when he plants crops that can be handled by machines, he will employ five.

Farmers across the country who depend on immigrant labor are facing the same decision as Eckel: Do they forge ahead and risk losing a crop, or do they plant another crop for which a machine can do the work?

"It is one of those situations where the ground is shifting under your feet and you may not notice it until two or five years out," said Jack King, director of national programs for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Workers on Eckel's farm averaged $16.59 an hour "and they earned every penny of it," Eckel said.

"No one will harvest tomatoes in 90 degree weather except immigrant labor," he said. And a number of people who worked in his packing house were retired workers picking up a few extra dollars, he said.

Congress needs to act, said Furey of the New Jersey Farm Bureau: "We need a national solution that is realistic, in tune with the economy and fair to the people."

Eckel gave President Bush credit for trying to enact meaningful change, but he said a divided Congress and emotions got in the way.

He said the climate was such that legal immigrants were fearful of moving across state lines, further exacerbating the problem.

Although his workers have documents proving that they are legal, Eckel said some estimates show that between 60 percent and 70 percent of the documents are fraudulent.

"We can no longer take the risk," he said. "We have done everything we can to comply with the law." Most farmers are honest, he said, but rather than run the risk of losing their crop, they simply won't plant one.

"It's a very uncertain time," said King of the California Farm Bureau. "Farmers are scared stiff on this immigration thing. They are operating at the mercy of the federal government."

King said that some of the state's vegetable growers were moving their operations to Mexico, raising concerns about food safety.

Last year Eckel planted 2.3 million tomato plants over 340 acres of his Lackawanna County farm, a crop that he estimated supplied about 75 percent of the fresh tomatoes in produce aisles between Boston and Washington.

He said his was the largest tomato producing operation north of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of Ohio.

This year, he is planting about 45 acres of sweet corn, and 1,200 acres of corn for grain.

When his mother asked where they will get tomatoes this summer, her son said: "We'll buy from one of our good neighbors."