Where Have all the Harvesters Gone?

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Immigration reform is the issue that won't go away. After a flurry of activity in Washington, D.C. and massive protests from coast-to-coast, Congress has decided to table the issue until after the midterm elections in November. Meanwhile, the country's agricultural industry is suffering substantial losses due to a lack of seasonal workers.

In California, for example, 30 percent of the pear crop went unpicked for a $10-million loss. Most of that was seen in Lakeport, California, located north of San Francisco. Peaches, plums and nectarines were also either picked late or not at all for another $10-million loss. California relies on 200,000 seasonal workers. The state's farm bureau estimates that the industry is down 40,000 to 70,000 workers right now at peak harvest.

Washington state has a $1.6 billion fruit industry. Apples are the signature crop and many varieties are being picked right now, yet farmers throughout the state say they need more workers.

Why is this happening? There are two reasons:

• A crackdown on illegal immigration

• A defection of immigrants from the fields to higher paying jobs in construction, landscaping, and restaurants

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that illegal immigrants comprise just over half of farm workers nationally. In the Pacific Northwest, it's believed they make up 70 percent. It's more costly and harder for Mexicans to cross the border illegally. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has also stepped up law enforcement well inside the border by going after companies that hire illegal immigrants.

There are several issues for Americans regarding immigration:

What should be done about the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the country? Should the government's guest worker program be streamlined to make it easier for companies to bring in workers from outside the U.S., or is the answer to pay domestic farm workers more?

In Europe, agricultural workers make a higher wage than in the U.S., but Europeans also pay higher prices for their food. America’s farmers don't set prices; they compete in a global market. If their costs go up, they either get a higher price for their crops, or they go out of business.

That’s a lot to think about the next time you bite into an apple grown in Yakima, Washington.

Speak Out! What do you think is the best solution to the shortage of farm workers in the U.S.? E-mail us at speakout@foxnews.com and jump into the debate!

Here's what FOX Fans are saying:

"Illegal immigration has caused our economy to be built on a house of cards. Why should immigrants pick produce when landscape and roofing jobs can lead to opening one's own business and hiring more illegals? Picking lettuce won't lead to owning the farm. Have a proper guest worker program to help farmers, eliminate the citizenship for anchor babies and no amnesty or path to citizenship for anyone here illegally. While we may not be able to deport all illegals, we should not reward them either." — Cathy (East Windsor, NJ)

"Give value to field work and workers by paying fair wages to the people who harvest our crops." — Marie (West Paterson, NJ)

"The oil and gas industry in the U.S. is buzzing at this time, so I am sure most immigrants are on drilling rigs and laying pipeline instead of picking fruit! The pay there is 10 times better. Once this market slows down, they will be back!" — Sandra

"Pay everyone fairly. It makes no difference who picks the crops — if you have a wage that is a fair wage then you will get a work force that is willing to do the work. The problem is the farmer wants to pay undocumented workers one wage that is lower then what they should get, and the undocumented workers are getting smarter about what is a fair wage." — G.P.

Dan Springer joined FOX News Channel as a Seattle based correspondent in August, 2001, and extensively covered the war in Afghanistan. You can read his bio here.

Dan Springer joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in August 2001 as a Seattle-based correspondent.