Despite high unemployment, farms can't find workers to pick strawberries

Many berries will likely go unpicked

PLANT CITY, Fla. - It's shaping up to be an impressive year for Florida strawberries. The fruit is coming in fast, health, and in big numbers.

But there is one problem.

"There won't be enough people to pick these berries," said Carl Grooms, Owner of Fancy Farms in Plant City.

Grooms can not find the workforce he needs this year.

Typically, migrant workers fill the positions on his farm and others, but new immigration laws in nearby states changed the routine for many in the Hispanic community.

"It's creating paranoia, in terms of coming through the states arriving in Florida," said Ted Campbell, Executive Director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

He said this is the first year they have seen this level of concern over a shortage of workers.

It may come as a surprise given the state's 10-percent unemployment rate.

"So the issue now becomes -- are Americans willing to do this work?" Campbell said.

It's not easy work, by any means. First, there's the hot and steamy Florida sunshine that workers must endure.

Then there are the physical demands -- workers bend over all day picking berries.

According to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, farm workers earn at least the minimum wage. During the picking season, some workers can earn more than 15 dollars an hour, depending on the amount of strawberries picked.

A handful of locals have tried the job at Fancy Farms.

"I can recall one fellow. He worked a half-day.  Another fellow, he worked two half-days," Grooms said. "One guy worked one hour!"

No one survived the job.

Besides the hard work, there's also a stigma attached with working in the fields. Campbell said that socially, some feel this type of work is beneath them.

In Grooms' case, his work force is down about 20-percent, but that number will get worse in the coming weeks when the season ramps up.

He's confident some berries will go unpicked this year.

"We need more people right now, but you don't dial up 4-0-9 and get the people you need," he said. "You wait for them to just drive in and you hire them."

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