It is often said that the best part of our industry is the people. After all, fresh produce is only possible because of the time, energy, and works of a community. But despite being one of our most celebrated and coveted resources, the produce industry at large is facing a labor crisis unlike any before.
“Immigration and labor are very big topics that need more allies to come to the table,” Soren Bjorn, President of the Americas at Driscoll’s, tells me. “Driscoll’s is stepping up to encourage more companies within and outside of the produce industry to join the discussion. I know this topic makes some reluctant to say anything, but there’s comfort in numbers, and we must push this dialogue forward.”
At the heart of the fruit and vegetable industry is growers, which makes harvesters, laborers, and workers the veins that carry our hottest commodities from the fields and to the stores. Both growers and harvesters are necessary; both are needed. But without plenty of veins, a heart can only do half of its job. While the produce industry continues to beat, it is at a precarious pace due to the current state of our country’s immigration policy.
Driscoll’s is one company that is making sure it is doing its part in fostering dialogue and developing solutions—and in a way that resonates. Over two years ago, the berry provider partnered with Farm League, a production company behind many Patagonia-backed feature films, to create a documentary about growers’ struggles with labor and labor-related issues. The result was The Last Harvest, which has, since its debut, been featured at over 25 film festival screenings and even at this year’s PMA Fresh Summit Expo and Convention. “The documentary is very much a grassroots effort targeting a specific political outcome because our goal is to start a conversation,” Soren continues. “The topic is heavily prevalent in the news, and we thought it was time to tell this story from a grower’s perspective with the hopes that a first-person point of view would facilitate meaningful dialogue. Really, The Last Harvest is a call to action.”
While Driscoll’s is working to inspire produce providers to join the likes of Walmart, Chobani, and Lyft—a few of the biggest names putting their weight behind supporting the immigrant workforce in The States—the company is also emboldening consumers to participate in the conversation as well.
MORE THAN 75% OF FRESH FRUIT IN THE U.S. IS HAND-HARVESTED. CRITICAL LABOR SHORTAGES ARE FORCING FARMERS TO ABANDON VALUABLE CROPS. THE HEALTHIEST FOOD WE CAN EAT IS BEING SQUEEZED AND OUR FOOD SYSTEM AND COMMUNITIES NEED SOLUTIONS.
“We want the consumers in heartland America to think about where their fruit comes from and what it takes to get their fruit to the table. If they think about that and make the connection with immigration, they may have a more enlightened view of what a solution should look like,” Soren explains. “As a country, we have a choice to make: Do we want our fruits to be produced? If yes, then it will be by immigrants—the evidence is overwhelming for who actually does it and will continue to do it, which is why we need a policy solution.”
According to data presented in The Last Harvest, more than 75 percent of the fresh fruit consumed in the U.S. is harvested by hand. But because there are fewer people showing up to pick said fruit every year, growers as a whole are taking a $3.1 billion hit as crops are left to rot. On top of these numbers, over 50 percent of Driscoll’s employees are foreign-born workers, making the company’s stake in this endeavor a personal one.
“It is our responsibility to stand in solidarity with immigrants that contribute so much to our company’s success,” Soren says. “Just weeks ago, I myself became a U.S. citizen. I don’t want to be in the middle of this debate, but I’m happy to do my part in making sure the necessary voices are heard and solutions are reached.”
Driscoll’s tie to the issue of immigration is also what led the company to partner with Farm League, award-winning storytellers well versed in highlighting topics, themes, and challenges, like the hopes and hardships of produce laborers, that are often invisible to the average consumer.
“Farm League was very passionate about this issue, which made them ideal partners for this project. And it didn’t hurt that the quality of their work is superb as well,” Soren adds.
Without spoiling the film, The Last Harvest presents the perspectives of three generational independent family growers, amplifying the voices of those this issue affects the most. The documentary also explores the problems that contribute to agriculture’s labor shortage and ways to mediate these challenges.
“We’ve received great feedback on The Last Harvest. Consistently, people will ask us, ‘What can we do to help?’ That’s exactly what we’re hoping for: We want to create a dialogue. Dialogue is so important, in fact, that at every screening we put on, we make sure there is a panel or Q and A afterward so that viewers walk away from the film knowing there are lots of different ways to help,” Soren says, before concluding: “We’re fortunate in the food industry, for more reasons than one. But, we’re better as an industry when we come together to improve the livelihoods of all people, and we need many more companies to step up with us in order to do that.”
There is so much room left for the produce industry to grow—in our fields, as people, and as a community. But, like The Last Harvest posits, we cannot grow without change. We cannot grow without harvesters, laborers, and workers—produce’s veins—keeping the heart beating and alive. There are no easy solutions, but that has never stopped our industry before.
Together, we are the change. Together, we are the solution.