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Some Jobless Find Work on Farms

Unemployed workers are seeking jobs in fruit orchards and vegetable fields, easing farm labor shortages in the process.

Farmers who struggled in recent years to find laborers report that former workers who left for higher-paying jobs in industries such as construction are coming back because of layoffs.

Growers also are getting applications from first-timers who see the backbreaking seasonal work as their chance at a paycheck.

"We're having a great many more applicants this year than we have had in the past," says Dan Bremer, president of AgWorks, a company that helps employers, primarily in Southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, apply for temporary visas to hire people from other countries for the season.

To qualify, farmers must advertise to prove the positions can't be filled by people already in the USA. Bremer says there have been three times the number of applications from U.S. workers this year than last. "Most are brand-new to farm work," he says. "Most come from factories that are closed, or come from various businesses that closed their doors."

The same is happening in Colorado, says Larry Lemmons of the state's Department of Labor and Employment.

From July through September 2008, 39 U.S. workers applied for 171 openings statewide in the visa program, he says. From January through March this year, 1,799 applied for 726 openings.

Lemmons says he doesn't know how many took jobs, but the growth in U.S.-worker applications is new.

"With the higher unemployment rate, we have workers who are willing to consider jobs that in the past they might not have been willing to do," he says.

Lemmons and Bremer are talking about legal workers. However, about 70% of the nation's 1.6 million farmworkers may be in the country illegally and present fake documents when applying, says Craig Regelbrugge of the American Nursery and Landscape Association. He says most of the people looking for farm work are probably illegal immigrants.

Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, which represents 3,000 produce farmers in California and Arizona, says many recent applicants are "people who lost their jobs in construction." Many had worked on farms before getting better-paying jobs, he said.

Kevin Andrew, chief operations officer for Sun World International, a fruit grower and marketer based in Bakersfield, Calif., says he was surprised to run across a few men from the San Fernando Valley, at least an hour and a half away, looking for work. One had been a waiter and the other worked in construction. Neither could find jobs in the Los Angeles area. "We've got people driving 120 miles one way" for farm jobs, he says. "For the first time in a decade, we have a labor force that is fairly reliable now."

The spike in new workers is most pronounced where housing boomed, says Armando Elenes, national vice president of the United Farm Workers union, which represents 29,000 workers, primarily in Oregon, Washington, California and Florida.

He spoke with a union carpenter a few weeks ago who was trimming grape bunches and leaves in Delano, Calif. "For every crew of 60 workers, at least five to seven are going to be former construction workers," he says. "It's pretty dramatic."

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