Local farmers face serious labor shortage – Industry experts say immigration laws need “tweaking”

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.”

18 Responses to "Local farmers face serious labor shortage – Industry experts say immigration laws need “tweaking”"

  1. observer   September 6, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Just not true. Lots of people that would do farm labor – the problem is the foreman and superintendents are Hispanic – they only want to hire hispanics. They do not consider English speaking Americans for these jobs. Forget guest worker and immigration reform, start networking for American labor, put English speaking foreman and superintendents in charge and watch what happens.

  2. English speaker   September 6, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    What I’ve heard is that people who are from the U.S. show up for one day and then don’t come back, because the work is too hard. My guess is that people who are willing to do hard work just don’t think of it, or know who to call for information to get work.

  3. observer   September 7, 2012 at 7:22 am

    @ English Speaker – I know of a gentleman right now that does various ranch work, english speaking American, does not ask for alot of money either , works from dawn to dusk without complaining and he was just replaced off two jobs he has counted on for the last 10 years by illegals that took even less money. Shame on the ranch owners! This man barely makes $10 an hour for the labor he did without complaints – the illegals must be getting even less!

  4. Tudo   September 7, 2012 at 8:38 am

    observer when are you going to apply or is that the excuse why you’re on the welfare roles making the rest of us pay for your useless life?

  5. hire high school graduates   September 7, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Why don’t more farms try to hire high school graduates and young adults who are in community college? There are plenty of people in that age group having a hard time finding jobs right now. I know plenty of people in that age group who would love to do farm work. Why not train some of these young adults how to do the job?

    I think the problem is to many farms want workers already skilled and don’t want to spend the time to train young adults and hire them.

    And trust me I know PLENTY of people who would rather work outdoors doing farm work than work at a place like mcdonalds!!!

  6. They need workers?   September 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    If they need workers why does not this article post contact information in it? I am sure if this article put up a phone number or a email that lots of people would contact them for a job.

    I also know both white and black people who work hard labor jobs. I know all white lawn mowing and landscaping workers. all english speaking.

    I find it very annoying when people think it is always hispanics doing this kind of work.

    Temecula needs to use its money to put a elective class in its high schools where kids can learn everything they need to know to get a job like this. Since wine country is so big for temecula then having a elective class to help kids in high school get a job after graduation would be awesome. maybe even have a field trip or 2 in the elective class where kids come to the farms and work hands on.

    School would be so useful if it had more elective classes where kids could learn actual jobs.

  7. woody   September 7, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    bring on the caucasians. good luck trying to find them, we have tried that route and it doesnt work. Unless you have tried it –you dont know!!!

  8. observer   September 7, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    @ tudo Ha ha, you judge me and don’t know me. What gives you the impression I am on any welfare ? I make more than enough money working my butt off to worry about paying for lazy dopes and illegals. Yes, I am a working, tax paying citizen! Go figure!

    AND I do my own yard work, and housecleaning!

  9. observer   September 7, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    @ woody – how about some affirmative action for white boys?

  10. rodbone   September 7, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    To bad there was no contact information left or a link for job openings, especially if this is such a real threat to our farms. I could have forwarded this onto atleast 10 dudes who would be willing to work for $20/hour.

  11. observer   September 7, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    @ rodbone, hate to say this but I doubt any of the workers except the foreman make $20 an hour. Field workers probably make closer to $8 or $10 if they are lucky but it might beat sign twirling on a hot day. Even so, its a job!

  12. Staff   September 7, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    If you are willing to work, why not call Drake Enterprises? Look up their number. They’re in Temecula. According to Mr. Drake, the average wage is $14 and if you can pick faster you can make as much as $20.

  13. observer   September 9, 2012 at 9:47 am

    @ Staff – Thank you for this information! If this is true, it will help a few folks I know!

  14. seasmilecros   September 9, 2012 at 10:29 am

    The issue is wages! Yes it is hard work and so should be paid as such. We’ve gotten very used to illegals working for pennies, but that can no longer be a comparison point. What we’re seeing is that workers (both illegals and citizens) are not willing to work at that price point any longer!

    So instead, pay decent wages to American citizens and you will find many workers willing to work the fields. But not for pennies! I can’t see why field managers cannot grasp this simple point.

  15. No Hope   September 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I don’t ever see these jobs posted anywhere. They are probably in spanish newspapers. Post them on the internet on main job websites, county offices, etc and people other than illegals would probably apply. That is a better rate of pay then my husband who works two jobs in this economy makes and illegals are making more than him at one job. The comment on making these jobs available to high school and college students is right on. My son was not able to find a summer job at all and would have done this work with that rate of pay to save for his first car. Things are so backwards in this Country you can’t make sense of any of it. Enforce our laws, secure our border, and put Americans to work FIRST!!!

  16. observer   September 10, 2012 at 10:41 am

    @ No Hope – Thank you for that! Both the Bureau of Farm Labor and other agencies ought to be ashamed of themselves for working so hard to perpetuate the advancement of illegal immigrants and not networking with schools and other unemployment agencies to get American’s working. SHAME ON THEM! The statistics alone make me ill. I am glad they are being exposed for what they are – agencies to support illegal immigration!

  17. Deluz Farmer   September 11, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    Observer (and several others): You clearly do not have a clue. The average white guy won’t do this type of semi-skilled hard labor. It’s too easy for him to sit home in his “jockeys” and watch TV and collect unemployment. All the while blaming illegals for his predicament.

    We have a reasonably priced and safe food supply thanks to the very hard work done by growers and their employees–legal or not. I do not know any farmer who wouldn’t prefer to hire an American citizen over an illegal; in many instances it’s really not a matter of choice if farming is to succeed. And, if farming fails in CA due to lack of water at any price, availability of workers, inadequate pest controls or government overreach, what then? Where will your reasonably priced and safe food come from? Countries without proper sanitation, handling, worker protections, etc. That’s where. And, it will cost you much more.

    You urban types who look down upon the entire ag industry should actually take a look at how many jobs this industry creates and the revenues it generates for CA. You should take an opportunity to actually visit with farmers to view their challenges. 99.5% aren’t all just rich guys with tax-shelter farms.

    I’m a proud member of the SDO Farm Bureau. Reading your comments makes it clear that the FB needs to do a bit more educational outreach.

  18. ProudDad   September 20, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Deluz Farmer: Don’t generalize that the average white guy won’t do this work…if you’ll hire anyone why don’t you post an add. My son just out of the Marines could and would gladly do this kind of work.
    No Hope, why high school kids can’t get summer jobs-most of the fast food servers are hispanic adults. The undergound economy and undocumented labor (not just illegal workers but unreported income) is killing our state in lost revenue and services being provided to those who don’t pay their share.


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