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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Labor shortage hits farms as picking season comes to a close

BRADENTON - On Tuesday they came by the car loads armed with bags, baskets and boxes to collect tomatoes. "And we figured we might as well give them to the public for a dollar a bucket, try to get them out of here," said David Hunsader, who along with his brother own Hunsader Farms in Manatee County. In generations of farming, Hunsader said his family has never struggled until now to clear the fields due to a lack of hands. "Why did we get behind? Because we're short help," he said. "We usually have a couple hundred people picking and now we're around 75. We usually have 15 or 20 trucks out here picking and today (Tuesday) we have five or six."
Hunsader put the blame for his lack of help on state lawmakers' push for immigration reform. "Some of the people (migrant workers) we heard maybe they're leaving the state because of that," he said. "They don't want to get pulled over and taken away. They went out of state or they went back to Mexico." He estimates that the farm's losses due to the labor shortage may reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. "I know of one farm up in Plant City where they said they abandoned one pepper field," Hunsader said "And we have some other ones (farms) that are abandoning tomatoes also … they're just getting behind." Dozens of people showed up early Tuesday at Hunsader Farms to take advantage of the open invitation to pick tomatoes themselves. "Of course this is sad," said Steve Prohidney. "Look at all the farmer put in and the money, investment and here's rotting tomatoes." Prohidney and his wife answered Hunsader's call for help by filling their car trunk with fresh tomatoes. "She'll blanch them and freeze them and then we can have fresh tomatoes whenever we want them," he said. "Normally we would have already had everything picked," said Hunsader as he walked through the rows of bright green tomatoes slowly turning red on the vine. Hoping to draw more workers to his farm, Hunsader has raised how much he'll pay per bucket full. "It was 45 cents a bucket last week and we went up yesterday (Monday) to 60 cents a bucket," Hunsader said. But so have other farms as growers scramble in the final weeks of the season. jbarron@wfla.com (941) 356-0045
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