Farmers complain of worker shortages

Published on October 25th, 2015

Tatiana Sanchez
October 25, 2015
San Diego Union Tribune
Labor shortages across the U.S. have forced some farmers to take extreme measures. In this file photo, tomatoes grow vertically in a greenhouse.

Labor shortages across the U.S. have forced some farmers to take extreme measures. In this file photo, tomatoes grow vertically in a greenhouse. — Charlie Neuman / UT San Diego

California farmers have long relied on immigrants to tend to their crops, a tradition that for decades has formed part of the state’s cultural identity.

The farm labor movement extends as far back as the early 1960s, when civil rights activist Cesar Chavez mobilized thousands of Latino farm workers in California to fight for better working conditions.

That tradition continues today, with foreign-born workers accounting for the vast majority of the country’s agricultural laborers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that half are unauthorized immigrants.

Now, this once-reliable source of labor appears to be dwindling, the result of less migration from Mexico and an aging farm worker population, among other complex factors. Domestic-born workers are unwilling to take their place, according to agricultural experts.

Farmers are left scrambling, and a large portion are taking measures to cope.

Some have begun planting fewer acres or have switched to less labor-intensive or machine-operated crops, while others have moved their operations to Mexico where they can hire larger crews, according to Guadalupe Sandoval, executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association.

"It’s made for a lot of competition for some employers out there in trying to secure adequate crews," he said. "We’re seeing vineyards ripped up and replaced for almonds, certain raisins replaced with new varieties that will be machine-harvested instead of hand-harvested."

Farmers say federal immigration reform is needed to regulate and grow their workforce, but critics are doubtful that the labor shortage is so severe.

President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration, introduced last November, included provisions to shield 250,000 farm workers from deportation. Half of those farm workers protected under the executive action would reside in California. But Obama’s plan remains blocked, and there’s no sign Congress will act on its own.

The number of full-time field and crop workers throughout the United States dropped by about 146,000 people — more than 20 percent — between 2002 and 2014, according to a 2015 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group of business leaders that supports "sensible" immigration reform.

The report crunched numbers from several sources, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor.

This decline has been even more pronounced in California, which produces half of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables. The state’s number of full-time field and crop workers declined by 85,000 — nearly 40 percent — between 2002 and 2014, according to the report.

Agricultural experts say a strengthened economy and declining birthrates in Mexico, greater difficulty crossing the border and aging farm worker populations have also contributed to a steep decline in workers.

U.S.-born workers have historically been reluctant to do the job, they said.

"The reality is our (agricultural) workforce in this country is foreign-born, despite the attempt to make it attractive to domestic born individuals. It just doesn’t happen," said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. "As a farm community, we think it’s reasonable to create some kind of a worker program that quantifies the need — not an open-door policy — for 300,000 workers or whatever the number might be."

Many workers unauthorized

About half of crop workers surveyed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 2007 and 2009 indicated they weren’t authorized to work in the United States, compared with just 15 percent between 1989 and 1991, according to the agency’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.

Critics, however, argue that claims of labor shortages are simply a tactic to push for a relaxation of immigration laws.

"When you go to the local markets, when you go to your local farmers markets during season, there just isn’t any evidence of shortage of crops," said Joe Guzzardi, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization. "I cannot recall going either to a farmers market or any other retail outlet where produce is sold and having somebody say, ‘We’re out of cherries or we’re out of peaches.’ That just doesn’t happen."

The nonpartisan, nonprofit group works to formulate policies and programs designed to stabilize California’s population in order to preserve the environment and promote good quality of life.

Guzzardi said worker visas already allow farmers to bring in "all the workers that they could possibly want."

The H-2A temporary agricultural visa program allows farmers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring in foreign workers to fill temporary or seasonal jobs. Employers must clear a series of federal regulations in order to qualify, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Sandoval of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association said that while the program is being used more often, it can be a time-consuming and expensive process.

Aging out of the industry

Net migration from Mexico stopped rising in 2012, ending the largest wave of immigration from a single country in U.S. history, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Weakened job and housing construction markets in the United States, heightened border enforcement and deportations, a decline in Mexico’s birth rates and promising economic conditions in Mexico contributed to this decline, according to Pew.

In an industry known for long hours and arduous physical labor in often extreme temperatures, an aging farm worker population makes matters worse.

"Agricultural employment is something that people do in their prime, during their young work years when they’re able to carry big baskets of fruits and vegetables around. They age out of the industry," said Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Rosenblum said that given the absence of federal immigration legislation, the demographics are likely to worsen.

Provisions for the country’s agricultural workers have often formed key components of previously proposed immigration reforms.

Obama’s stand-alone immigration plan, introduced in November 2014, would’ve shielded five million unauthorized immigrants from deportation, including a quarter million farm workers and 125,000 in California alone. A Texas judge halted the plan earlier this year.

In California, a bill that would’ve granted temporary legal status and deportation relief to as many as 550,000 unauthorized farm workers in the state died in the Senate Appropriations Committee in August.

Agricultural experts fear the persisting labor shortage could eventually drive the majority of crop production out of the country, a last-resort alternative that would raise food prices and eliminate the farm-to-table movement that has become popular in recent years.

"Mexico will gladly take up the shortage and send more food to us. We would then become dependent on foreign countries for our food sources," Larson said. "It becomes a matter of national food security."

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