Local farm laborers, NAFTA, and child labor laws

June 7, 2012

John Salisbury

OPINION By JOHN SALISBURY

It is time for a little recap on developments on past articles. The first is that the White House, after facing fierce political pressure from Republicans, rural Democrats and farm groups across the nation has backed off on their draconian child farm labor rules proposed by the Department of Labor.

These rules would have made it almost impossible for youngster under the age of 16, under 18 in many cases, to work on family farms. It was an assault on family farms and tradition that would have disallowed young people to do even common farm family chores. The rules would have discouraged youths from going into farming because once they are all-knowing teenagers the chance to instill caution, safety, responsibility, work ethic, and the desire to be a farmer has long passed.

The rules would have prevented workers under 16 to even clean or lube a tractor let alone be around one that was operating to include lawn and garden tractors. They also would not be able to work around any breeding stock with newborns which raised questions about 4-H and FFA projects. They couldn’t detassel corn (big in Mid-west), work in tobacco crops, or be on a ladder over six feet plus many more not well thought out nanny-state restrictions. Glad to be done with that – for now that is until the next assault.

The second is the 1994 NAFTA agreement included a requirement that Canada, Mexico, and the United States allow full access to each others’ highways.

Pressure from trucking labor unions on claims of unsafe equipment and drivers plus other concerns prevented the implementation for years.

After a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2004, President Bush was able to implement a successful pilot program that revealed that the Mexican long haul trucks were as safe if not safer than U.S. trucks. Newly installed President Obama, under political pressure from the trucker’s union, ended the 18 month program.  Mexico retaliated with a severe tariff ($2.4 billion) on the U.S. export goods especially table grapes at 45 percent and wine at 20 percent, near and dear to my heart.

Last summer the tariff was lifted after it was agreed that Mexican trucks could enter the U.S. highway system. To date only one company has trucks crossing the border with another about to. They are allowed in on a three year program.

The big problem is that there is still strong opposition by American labor groups. So having been snake bit once by the Obama administration other Mexican trucking companies, 21 on the list, are biding their time until they can be sure it is safe to gear up for the program. Especially so since the Highway Transportation and Reauthorization bill is working its way through Congress and there is the chance someone could sneak in something to kill the program. So there is no onslaught of these “crazy driven unsafe polluting trucks from Mexico” in the lane next to you. Plus it will be very unlikely because of diligent vehicle inspection stations that will be checking these trucks when they do start coming across the border.

Lastly, ag labor is already in short supply with local farmers seeing tighter labor availability in filling out harvest crews. The farther north you go the harder it is to find to find labor. Some winter fresh tomato growers in the south did not plant some of their intended acres for fear of not having labor to harvest. They have diverted to crops that can be picked by machine.

Other farmers have tried our experiment of hiring citizen labor with the same dismal results. After thinking back on our harvest, I just think it boils down to the modern day unskilled laborer can’t mentally do the same monotonous work hour after hour anymore. Especially so in fairly tough outdoor working conditions even at the $12 per hour average that we paid in cool weather Avila Valley for only an average six to seven hours a day.

We are so hard wired to all the constant action going on around us via email, TV, texting, cell phones that mundane work just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s ADD on steroids where physical work is required.  I know, other than driving tractor for hours, I can’t seem to mentally do the hands-on vine work for very long anymore. Maybe being 70 this year and the damn cell phone going off often has something to do with it!.

I am still going to give it a try again this harvest with the citizen crew and maybe go over to Prado Road with the trolley and recruit. We probably will have lot of turnover on some of the days, especially after payday, and will need to fill in for those that quit. At least they will have some spending money for a while.

There are changing demographics in Mexico with the population getting older with fewer babies born. Except for the Cartel violence, Mexico is doing pretty well economically. There are job opportunities available there and a report from the Pew Hispanic Center has noted that the number of immigrants is down considerably. There may be more people leaving the United States and going to Mexico than the other way around.

Of course, the increased presence of federal agents along the border and the increased danger of crossing illegally because of the Cartels have also slowed illegal immigration. So if this is the trend then it is all the more reason that we need a sensible immigration policy with a certified grower/contractor guest worker program to provide labor for agriculture. That is if we want to pick our crops and you want to eat. Machines can’t do it all with perishable crops.

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt” Mary Atwood

John is a 6th generation California farmer whose family has been continuously farmed in California for 160 years. John now concentrates on farming 45 acres of wine grapes in the Avila Valley and Paso Robles producing Salisbury Vineyard wines.


12 Comments

  1. The Gimlet Eye says:

    The federal government is conducting a census of all farms to compile a data base of farm assets.

    [This appears to be the first step in the implementation of Obama's executive order that claims government control over farmland, crops, seeds, livestock, and all aspects of farming. Those who think they own their farms may soon be in for a big surprise.]

    NaturalNews 2013 Mar 27

    http://www.naturalnews.com/039652_USDA_agriculture_census_government_surveillance.html#ixzz2OjsAwqhU

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  2. Jack L says:

    We need good food from the fields and we need really bright educated famers and ranchers. I’m a native of CA over 6 decades. What alarms me is the central valley pollution. It’s so bad it reminds me of the LA basin back in the early 60’s. The air quality is so bad it creeps clear up to the very top of the Sierras in summer and ruins all the vistas not to mention the long term heath issues and damage to trees, etc. I read about salt and chemicals in the ground.

    I hope farmers and ranchers can get together with the powers that be and start a long term program to reverse many forms of agriculture pollution and discover even more efficient water use. It will get us all if we do not figure out positive changes. When I was young I could see the snow on the Sierras in winter from the west side of the valley. Now that’s so rare it’s amazing to even see a faint outline of that view for a few hours after a hard rain. I now avoid the central valley if possible. It’s not alll Ag related but a lot of it is.

    It’s a major challenge but we have many intelligent children, soon to be in college, that can bring about the changes we need if politicos see the light..

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    • johnthefarmer says:

      I agree that it is a shame we can’t see the mountain views that we knew as kids. It is one reason I moved from the Delta where I grew up for the fresh air of the Central Coast. A lot of the pollution that was attrbuted to farmers has been eliminated. Burning prunings, pulled trees and weeds are at a minimum with more chipping, grinding and new ways to clear rice fields. Stationary ag motors, like pumps, are being required to be retrofited to cleaner burning engines as are tractors and other self propelled ag machinery. No-till farming is on the increase which cuts down on dust from several passes through with field with discs and other soil disturbing equipment.
      The problem of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys is that they are dead ends at the north and south with mountain ranges holding in the pollutilon much of which carried in from the Bay area pollution with the Delta breezes. Plus, it won’t be long before Hwy 99 from Fresno to Sacramento. Also development along I-5 is growing also.

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  3. Structure says:

    Mad props for actually trying to get some unemployed from SLO homeless to go work. However, I’m not going to be surprised either when that doesn’t pan out. That doesn’t mean I want to see “child” (teenagers right, but they should still be in school) labor in the fields. So hopefully, you’re also proposing rules that will help keep migrant labor in school and out of the fields (or back in Mexico). I also don’t really like the idea of having a permanent underclass of agricultural workers doing jobs Americans won’t (well for that wage, because frankly for around $25-30 and hour I and many others will do that work…some of us quite well). So lets find a way of making these jobs pay wage that supports families, but doesn’t draw in illegal workers.

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    • johnthefarmer says:

      Any guest worker program would require that the workers, mostly young men without their families, go back home for at least a month or so. In a couple of years, they would make enough money to buy a farm, market, or other business back home where they really want to be and be replaced by others. This is what happened in many cases during the Bracero Program so we would not have a permanent underclass of ag workers.
      As for paying more, we now pay at least 20 to 35% more than the minimum wage for unskilled workers (more in many cases with piece rate) and I doubt much of an wage increase, especially for citizens with no field work experience, will gain a corresponding increase in productivity. I am going to try again maybe targeting the homeless on wheels at harvest even though my friends think I am being Don Quixote-ish and still tilting at windmills! A side note: we are being bombarded from some of the citizen crew with unemployment claims 8 months after harvest mostly from those who only lasted a couple of days.

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      • Structure says:

        The Bracero program certainly seems a better model than our current system. I recall that many growers objected to that program because it inserted the federal government into the equation (hours, conditions, wages). I’m pretty sure something like that is a political dead end with the current dysfunction in our party system.

        I get your point about the wage premium. I do wish some of the public assistance programs would work more actively with employers like yourself who are willing to take a chance with the unemployed. It would be interesting if some labor researcher could put together a grant proposal and study the impact of wage increases. I wonder at what point you could really temp the unemployed/underemployed in. I say that as someone who now has a professional job but remembers well breaking concrete for 10 hours a day for $8.00 an hour (90s)

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      • OnTheOtherHand says:

        I agree that there needs to be a reform of the immigration system such as you are proposing. However, I also agree with Structure that there would be an adequate supply of American workers if you were able and willing to pay a decent wage. I would consider twice your $12/Hr. a good wage for an experienced worker and even knock off $5/hr. for a good health insurance program. Otherwise, given the cost of housing in this area, it is difficult to find an affordable apartment to say nothing of saving toward home ownership at $12 or less per hour.

        As things stand now, you and your fellow ag businessmen could not be competitive paying those wages — even assuming there was an increase in productivity over unskilled workers. But what would happen if no one could undercut wages with cheap foreign labor and imports were taxed enough to prevent unfair competition from nations with cheap labor? (Sorry, just a bit of wistful dreaming there — our big corporations are too invested in third-world production to let their political puppets do anything like that.)

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  4. johnthefarmer says:

    Please do not think this film portrays what happens in agriculture especially when the advocate says there are hundreds of thousands of young kids working on farms under these conditions especially on farms not owned by their family. In fact, please show me just one case like what is shown in the clip that happens here in California. I seriously doubt any farm worker, adult or child, is allowed to work in the field barefooted just from a workman’s comp angle alone. Notice the kids have clean clothes and feet to include the girl’s new flip-flops. It is obviously a set-up flick.
    Anyone who would make underage kids work steadily for 10 to 14 hours a day and not be allowed to go to school for any stretch of time should be shot for being stupid and illegal. Same thing goes for spraying fields near farm workers. California farmers are the most regulated ag industry in the world and any activity like this would be picked up in a heart beat.
    As for being political, what I have written above are just the facts as they happened and reported by verifiable sources and my personal experience with our citizen labor force. No real agenda in my articles other than to bring to light what we farmers go through trying to put food (wine) on the table.

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  5. unlisted says:

    And, for the other side of the argument, watch:

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    • Jack L says:

      Amen. There are a number of issues with this article and this is certainly one of them. As with most arguments for ones political beliefs, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

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  6. Travis from SLO says:

    Good article. I got attacked today for being a 5th generation Central Coast Resident. It is a worn out cliche they say LOL :-)

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  7. R.Hodin says:

    Thank you for the article, and especially for your context on the policy updates.

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