It’s the middle of fall. The temperatures are bearable, the field is bare and Amy Van Scoik is ready to spend a week planting 26,000 strawberry plants.
At Frog Song Organics, October is dedicated to planting strawberries, radishes, greens, turnips and other fall crops to be harvested next spring. This strawberry season has brought Amy and her husband John Bitter different challenges aside from the familiar weather or pest problems.
Growing up in Florida, Amy, 35, learned gardening essentials from her grandmother and found her passion for cultivating food at a young age. Then after learning more about how food is produced and becoming a vegetarian, Amy and John established Frog Song Organics in Hawthorne, Florida, just 20 minutes east of Gainesville.
However, they have seen an unexpected delay in bringing documented workers to their organic farm this year. She says they have not been able to find qualified workers in the U.S. who are willing to stay long enough.
That is why during this election, immigration policy will be a top issue for Amy and her family.
“You’re either going to import your food or your workers,” she says.
Without workers, Frog Song Organics has relied on recent community support and volunteers to fill the absence of documented workers. It has not only financially affected the business, but it has also created a shortage of food in the local community.
Amy says an agreement with Alachua County schools to supply organic, locally-grown kale has been delayed for months due to a scarcity of workers for planting and harvesting. She says the school district may need to find another crop supplier in the meantime, and that produce might not be locally grown or as healthy for students to eat.
Not only is this a temporary loss of business for Frog Song Organics but also an unwelcome drop in revenue. Amy says immigration visa reform will be vital for her business and the agriculture community to thrive.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 38,000 workers were hired in Florida during the one-week reference span in their annual 2018 April reports. These workers are paid above Florida’s minimum wage at $11.89 per hour on average. Amy says that is not a cheap fare, and farm operators are also expected to provide housing and travel.
Health care is not provided for the workers, something Amy and John have struggled to provide their own family as agricultural business owners in Florida.
“Being farmers and small business owners, [we] definitely went without any health insurance for a long time,” Amy says. “We’re young and generally healthy but things can change.”
Both John and Amy are registered as independent voters, and she plans to look at the issues and the collective goals of candidates rather than their party affiliation and “political game.”
A lesser focus on the two-party system can lead to progress that makes a real difference, Amy says, and part of that is voting responsibly through researching candidates and their policies.
One thing she would love to see is a less complicated, less expensive program that allows year-round field workers. She says it also allows the farm’s best quality workers to remain employed on a renewing basis.
“That’s what we want – stability,” Amy says. “Farmers already deal with the weather. If we can simplify any factors, it’s beneficial.”
Hannah Lee is one of many volunteers at Frog Song Organics who share the same passions as the Van Scoiks. Hannah, 23, grew up on a farm where her parents raised a range of livestock, and she learned “you didn’t have to be blood to be family” and “everyone can lend a helping hand.”
As a young voter, she plans to “vote for the lesser evil.” And as a consumer, she does not mind spending more of her grocery budget for food from a safe agricultural environment.
“My five extra dollars makes a big difference — it’s a make or break for some family farms,” Hannah says. “This will either provide Christmas for them or pay their bills or it will just enable them to grow bigger and help more people.”
From spending time at Frog Song Organics, Hannah sees the value of farmers who love what they do in the Van Scoik’s management. Hannah says John and Amy’s passion for people’s health provide not only the food for people to eat well but also the knowledge to live a healthy life.
Other issues important to Amy are non-point source pollution from agriculture and the production of deregistered agricultural chemicals in the U.S. She says both of these need to be controlled to improve the health of both people and the environment.
“There’s a lot of changes that need to be made to make our food system more equitable, fair and just for all the people involved,” she says.
This election could make a difference in the policies that directly affect local farms like Frog Song Organics. With a new commissioner of agriculture, Florida governor and local representatives, immigration reform could be a topic on the table.
As for the current strawberry season at Frog Song Organics, time will tell how the plants fare. But Amy and her community can hope for change in the next season.