Regional agriculture businesses have dealt with challenges from thrips, psyllid, and water shortages for decades, but the biggest test to the industry’s future may be a present and looming labor shortage.
Agri-business leaders in California and throughout the country have been sounding the alarm for years – that unless and until a new comprehensive immigration agreement can be reached by U.S legislators, growers may soon be forced to plow under their groves and fields, not because of pests and drought, but for a lack of skilled laborers.
California, some in the industry say, may soon become like Georgia, where tougher state immigration laws have forced immigrant workers – especially skilled pickers – to flee, leaving crops rotting on the ground.
According to Ben Drake of Drake Enterprises in Temecula, the shortage of labor is not a local or state issue, but a federal one. Drake specializes in harvesting avocados and wine grapes.
Drake is a board member for the Riverside Farm Bureau and the California State Board of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). His company is experiencing the labor shortage first-hand in Southwest Riverside County.
“We need a guest worker program; Americans don’t want to do farm labor work,” said Drake. “We need more minor skilled labor.”
Drake is putting in long hours with his crew.
“Last night I started working at 9 p.m. and finished at 5 a.m. this morning,” he said. “Tonight we’ll start all over again.”
“Typically, we have two to three labor contractors. Now I have to find packers with crews available and prices are going up,” said Drake.
Drake, who has been in the industry since 1973 said, “The problem is not that the labor isn’t getting paid enough. We’re paying $14 to $20 an hour typically for labor. Most average $14 an hour. A good night’s work is sometimes $20 an hour if the wine grape clusters are larger and they can pick faster. The lowest we’ve had on our payroll is $9.50. It’s not a matter of pay – it’s a matter of not having a stable labor pool.”
Drake added, “The farmers are saying, ‘Water is high, harvesting is high, chemicals are high, why am I doing this anymore?’ Crops are coming in from across the borders where they don’t have pesticide regulations, minimum wage, and the quality of the fruit is terrible after sitting around for a month. Then people get discouraged after seeing what is in the store. It’s a disaster.”
Drake said the problem is also evident in the berry industry. He explained that laborers are paid on a piecework basis and berries need to be harvested on Monday and picked again on Thursday. However, laborers may not be able to get back to the field until Friday or Saturday. By then, if the fruit is beginning to “break down” when the grower presents it to a buyer such as Driscoll’s, it ends up being downgraded and going to processing because it can’t go onto the truck and make the journey effectively to the grocery store.
Fallbrook packing plants (just south of Temecula) are seeing the problem looming on the horizon. Reuben Hofshi of Del Rey Avocado in Fallbrook says most of his employees have at least 20 years of experience and replacing them will be difficult if current immigration laws aren’t changed.
“We are very fortunate that we have people working here that have been with us for a long time,” Hofshi said. “In the future, I don’t know how we might find their replacements. The immigration laws and all the regulations have to change. It’s just getting ridiculous. The government agencies just need to get together and decide what the law is going to be.
“Part of the problem is that one group from the government wants to do it one way, and another wants to do it a different way. I don’t think the government really knows what it wants to do right now. Once they figure it out, then we won’t have the problems we’re having now.”
At a statewide CDFA meeting held Aug. 7 in Watsonville, Calif., several speakers, including government representatives, coalitions for immigration reform, farm labor contractors and attorneys, all met to discuss the problem and possible solutions at hand.
In a notice regarding the meeting, CDFA Secretary Karen Ross said, “Agricultural labor is about people, families and communities.” Ross cited a report called California Ag Vision, Strategies for Sustainability.
“The report calls for private sector initiatives, administrative measures and legislation to adopt a suite of policies and actions to assure a strong labor force through fairness to agricultural workers and employers. The food production that starts in the fields and orchards of California is highly reliant upon hand labor, and we need to take a strong leadership role to ensure we are responsive to the needs of employees and employers.”
According to a survey published in 2009 by the National Agricultural Workers Survey, approximately 75 percent of farm workers are foreign born with 72 percent born in Mexico. About half of California’s crop workers are unauthorized, according to the same survey. California is the largest agricultural producer in the nation, representing approximately 16 percent of national crop receipts and seven percent of U.S. revenue for livestock and livestock products.
Speaking to the need of legal farm labor, Eric Larson, executive director of the Escondido-based San Diego Farm Bureau said, “We are on the brink of a very serious crisis in this area, in the state and in the country as a whole.”
“The immigration problem that we have in this country needs to be addressed very soon or the rest of the country is going to look a lot like Georgia, where growers have been put out of production and are just turning-up their fields.”
Larson blames a lack of action – specifically by Congress – for the current shortage of workers in the county.
“We all understand the national security concerns that must be addressed by our government – we’re completely supportive of those measures. But there is a way to maintain our security, and still allow the immigration of workers into this country. Our legislators just need to get together and work this thing out.”
Writing in the California Avocado Commission’s Spring 2012 newsletter, Ken Melban, the CAC Issues Management director, opined “the reality is that for decades the federal government has turned a blind-eye to undocumented immigrants, many of whom provide skilled labor for agriculture. To suggest that imposing new legislation in one fell-swoop will instantly correct this situation is both illogical and impractical. Some type of guest-worker program must be included that will allow the on-going utilization of this important workforce,” Melban wrote.
Larson said if the immigrant issue isn’t resolved quickly on behalf of growers, other industries will soon feel the effect of a depleted workforce.
“Those agriculture workers are vital to our entire economy – without them we’re going to be faced with crops rotting in the fields and farmers forced to go out of business,” Larson said. “It may be hard for some people to understand, but this problem effects more than just the agriculture industry. There is a huge trickle-down effect to this crisis.”