We need a commonsense guest worker program

October 29, 2011

John Salisbury


A report on our Citizen wine grape picking crew. After a “Call to Arms” for local unemployed citizens to pick grapes that started in our monthly column in the Avila Community News and our blog inthevines.com, we were picked up by Cal Coast News, Lewis Perdue’s international “New Fetch” wine blog (you should get it if you want to know what is going on in the wine business worldwide), ‘Wines and Vines’, WineBusiness.com and by KSBY’s television newscast.

We had over 80 inquiries for the jobs. We had forty come in and fill out a five page application from which we picked 22 to come in for an interview with four of those not showing up. So we took the 18 remaining and started picking on a Wednesday. That day cost us over $500 a ton which is three times the normal. The next day it picked up a little.

We were becoming worried because we were getting behind as the Pinot Noir was quickly getting ripe. So we brought in one of our veteran documented crews on the third day. They (75 percent women) lapped the citizen crew. The fourth day was a Saturday and four of the “citizen crew” didn’t call or show up and at the end of the day we let another six go because they just weren’t up to the job and hadn’t showed any improvement or the desire to do so. It was obvious this was their first time in the field or else the first job ever for some of the younger pickers (some were “volunteered” by their mothers).

That left us with eight, one of whom could only work two weeks resulting in the “Magnificent Seven” (out of 80) and quite a diverse group it is. The leader is a retired Lt. Col. Air Force Chaplin, plus an unemployed waitress, a graphic designer, a fine young man from Transitions Mental Health, and three young fellows with various degrees of college education. Three members of this crew do quality control by taking leaves and bad bunches out of the bins plus picking while the others are pure pickers. To date they are averaging around $12 an hour.

At this point, I wouldn’t trade them for anybody but unquestionably they will not be back next season because they will all certainly get better jobs in the meantime.

We had to really chaff through the straw to get the kernels and this process is not sustainable. We are bit lucky here because we are near urban populations. But what about those in the remote rural areas where most of the ag-jobs are? How do they get the unemployed, hours away, to the fields? Because of regulations (ask Dan DeVaul), you can’t house them anymore unless you have something akin to a Motel 6 on the ranch. How are farmers going to be able to do this with our unemployed with an unreal dropout rate of over 90 percent as in our case? We guaranteed $80 a day and worked mostly six to seven hours a day to get the fruit into our co-op crusher cool and before the bigger growers tied up the equipment. So the days were not that long for the tough work and the weather was cool in Avila, but we still couldn’t keep most of the citizen pickers.

Nationwide there is an acute shortage of farm workers including California. Washington apple growers who are running radio ads offering $120 to $150 a day to pick apples with few takers. Washington state officials figure that the agriculture labor force is about 72 percent “document challenged.”

Georgia figures there are 5,200 jobs short for field workers. Alabama, which brought it on themselves with the country’s toughest immigration laws, is reporting huge shortage of labor for construction, agriculture and poultry. Texas is looking for pickers for organic crops without much luck. When these crops are not picked, all the people, mostly U.S. citizens, who process, ship, sell, provide goods and services to all parts of the agribusiness chain also don’t work. The domino effect is tremendous.

Farmers are stuck to the land and do not have the privilege of an Apple or Gap that can move their production to countries with many low wage workers with little protection for the employees.

Contrary to popular belief, we usually pay at least 20 percent above the minimum wage. We are regularly inspected by OSHA, EPA, Air Quality Control, Dept. of Pesticide Regulations, Regional Water, and County Ag Commissioner and on and on. We supply the safest food in the world at a reasonable price that must rise just by supply and demand if this labor situation is not brought under control.

The alternate is the importation of foods grown with $8 a day labor and a lack of government oversight on food safety. If you like your oil coming from unfriendly regimes, then you are really going to love your food coming from them.

I have seen many comments about subsidies for farmers – hardly in California. My family has been farming in the state for 161 years (1850) and there were not any subsidies in tough times for us when trying to hang onto the farm. Crop insurance costs money and doesn’t come close to paying for what can be lost in potential wine sales.

With the coddling child labor laws, farmers can’t take the risk of hiring anyone under 18. They can’t use ladders, work near operating equipment, use sharp equipment (shears) and many other restrictions which have led to the demise of the present day work ethic that many of my generation fortunately developed as kids while working on farms and at other businesses. How many of our unemployed are fraudulently gaming the system with unemployment insurance, welfare, and social security disability payments instead of being available to work on farms? At least 20 of the applicants that responded to our call for pickers were physically able to do the job but wanted cash so as to not jeopardize their government payments.

We need a guest worker program now. The Obama administration has initiated twice as many immigration enforcement cases against businesses in the first seven months of this year as compared to the year before. And he gets a pass with the Hispanic voters?

The labor pool is drying up because of fears of the migrant workers who are finding out that the business owners can’t risk the penalties for hiring undocumented workers. We need a guest worker program with USDA certified employers, taxes paid, proper wages, good working conditions, licensed and insured drivers. They can easily net a thousand dollars a month which goes a long way in a town or village where workers may make $250 a month if they have a job.

In a few years, most won’t be back to be replaced with others, because they will have made enough money to buy a farm, market, or be able to use their acquired skills in business and live where they really want to be – home. There also will not be the need to bring their families across the border to live. That practice started when the Bracero Program was halted in the mid-1960s and has led to some of our social problems of today. A commonsense Guest Worker Program is needed now.

John is a 6th generation California farmer whose family has been continuously farmed in California for 160 years starting in the Sacramento Delta in 1850. John now concentrates on farming 45 acres of wine grapes in the Avila Valley and Paso Robles producing Salisbury Vineyard wines.

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“Because of regulations (ask Dan DeVaul), you can’t house them anymore unless you have something akin to a Motel 6 on the ranch.”

What “regulations”? Quote it to us chapter and verse with a link to the website where we can read it for ourselves!

I can’t give you the chapter and verse but if you contact the Sacramento County Planning Dept. they can. When I was growing up, we had two housing camps. One was for our Filipino crew (which were WWII veterans) and they lived there free until they died. A separate part on it was housing for the Braceros. The other was for 6 Japanese families who came back from the internment camps. Three of the Japanese families stayed on the ranch for forty years while the others went back to their ranches that my Dad saved for them while they were interned after they got back on their feet. In the 1970s the camps were torn down because they became to hard to keep up and a state of the art housing unit was built for the Filipinos and migrant farms workers mostly during pear season. The three Japanese families had moved into new separate homes on the ranch.

Nowadays my friends say that they cannot economically house pear pickers for just the month and a half of the season because of rules set in place by the Planning Dept. The regulations are so strict that if is just not economical to provide housing for such a short time.

Government always knows best.

The Trib. this a.m. has a story about a huge Washington bumper apple crop, couldn’t get it picked so dragged the prisoners out of their cells &paid ’em $8.67/hr. Apparently couldn’t get “fully staffed after advertising $120 to 150 bucks a day to get ‘er done.

The bracero program, mentioned in the op-ed piece, worked very, very well….until the mechanical tomato harvester was invented. The workers lost their jobs, did not have the money to go “back home.” Indeed, to most, America was their home. That’s when the degradation of that culture began.

The other thing that went hand-in-hand with the mechanical tomato harvester was those tasteless styrafoam-like tomatoes sold by supermarkets. They had to breed a tomato that could withstand being bashed around by the mechanical harvester.

Ahhhh, progress.

The reason the processing tomato harvester was developed was because of the shortage of labor when the Bracero Program in 1964 was halted. I know because I ended up with 5 of them which provided better jobs for 25 sorters/machine than the stoop labor of picking tomatoes. Now that has evolved to only a few per machine because of color and dirt sorting electronics. Also the processing tomato season is only for a maximum of three months. As for the lousy tasting tomatoes, I agree but you will rarely get one to eat because most is processed into paste. The tasteless tomatoes you are eating from the grocery stores are the result of picking them green and gassing them to ripeness. That way they look better to eat. My fresh marker tomato operation in California and Mexico were vine-ripes that tasted a whole lot better but the problem was that they didn’t look as good as the gassed green (style over substance) which made it hard to compete..

It’s sad that the only way our kids will get a good taste of how veggies and fruit should taste is if we grow them ourselves, it seems like even much of the produce in the supposedly healthy type of stores doesn’t have the flavor that homegrown has. It’s also sad that produce is now %50-70% less nutritious then it was 40 years ago. Sometimes you can find good produce but certainly not at the supermarkets.

Heck, a lot of life is like that. You know the old saying, if you really want to get something done, do it yourself!

The farther away some job or chore gets from the person who wants it done, the less likely it is to be done right.

The cotton harvester and tomato harvester were developed before the program. These two innovations, plus the flood of illegal Mexican workers (estimated to be greater than the number of braceros), produced a decrease in the number of jobs available for braceros and an excess of workers. This history is well documented.

ITA about the picking green and gassing them. I don’t buy tomatoes unless I am sure of the source and can tell they are actually vine ripened, and I just don’t eat tomatoes (actually, most vegetables) out of season.

When you’ve waited all winter for summer-ripened tomatoes–the first bite is almost psychedelic in intensity.

What do you think about the heritage tomatoes hitting the market?

The tomato machines were just in their infancy in the mid-60s and were being developed because of the inpending loss of the Bracero Program. We were still picking by hand on our ranch up to1969 and still receiving hand picked boxes at the cannery I worked for until 1971. The big problem wasn’t so much the machines, which were pretty primiitive compared to what we have now, it was developing a tomato that ripen all at once and tough enough to withstand the mecanical harvest.

As for other machines, much of the winegrapes are picked by machine. We can’t because our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, plus our hillsides, are not suited for machine pick because they are thin skinned and wouldn’t hold up. Also, we are pretty picky about what goes into the winery. You are going to see a lot more innovation in machinery in all ag crops which will cut down on immigrants coming in. Hope it doesn’t lead to more tastless fruits and vegetables.

What you mentioned about waiting on the seasons is right on. I can’t eat an apple in the winter that has been in storage for months nor any other fruit out of seaon – pretty much off the tree or nothing. I have grown heirloom tomatoes in the past and am setting up an acre on the ranch to do it and other organic vegetables again. We hope to have daily all organic, all fresh, all local fruit stand at our Avila Valley Schoolhouse tasting room utilizing the food from organic growers in the County starting this winter. The big holdup for the last year was that we had to have a certified commercial kitchen (expensive) to do it which we now have. So look for it.

johnthefarmer, thanks for the additional explanations. Every business and industry has its own peculiar ways of doing things and its own logistical problems. It is essential to know exactly what those are before we can understand the situation.

So, MaryMalone, what are you suggesting, that we go back to a more primitive and inefficient way of doing things? That will never do! Civilization is built on machinery! Allow me to introduce you to an old friend, Henry Hazlitt:

“Among the most viable of all economic delusions is the belief that machines on net balance create unemployment. Destroyed a thousand times, it has risen a thousand times out of its own ashes as hardy and vigorous as ever. Whenever there is long-continued mass unemployment, machines get the blame anew. This fallacy is still the basis of many labor union practices. The public tolerates these practices because it either believes at bottom that the unions are right, or is too confused to see just why they are wrong.”

Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Insitutue, 1946, 2008), 33.

See also: http://mises.org/ for a wealth of information on Austrian Economics.

Your implication that less technology is better is well refuted by Frederic Bastiat:

“If then the secret desire of each producer were realized, the world would rapidly retrograde towards barbarism. The sail would proscribe steam; the oar would proscribe the sail, only in its turn to give way to wagons, the wagon to the mule, and the mule to the foot-peddler. Wool would exclude cotton; cotton would exclude wool; and thus on, until the scarcity and want of every thing would cause man himself to disappear from the face of the globe.” (from “Sophisms of the Protectionists,” 13-14).

What do we need cars, trucks, trains, airplanes for? Why not just put everything on a donkey?

California democrat politicians will never reinstate the Bracero program for one simple reason; it works, and that’s counter to the objectives of crisis creation and taxing the populace to solve problems that don’t exist.

You make absolutely no sense. Is this the latest rightwinger fringe psycho-shorthand?

Maxfusion, I’m not sure how well the “Bracero” program actually worked, but your statement about “the objectives of crisis creation and taxing the populace to solve problems that don’t exist” is ABSOLUTELY SPOT ON! That’s what government is all about these days! In fact, hasn’t it ALWAYS been like that? I strongly suspect that it has. The only thing that I would add to your statement is “enslaving the population.”

I, for one, support a guest worker program of the type you are describing. Workers (no families) are screened (no criminals or infectious diseases) brought here, housed and given temporary health insurance. They work for a specified period of time and then they are returned to their country.

The Bush plan failed to gain acceptance because they attempted to add a path to citizenship to the plan. Canada has a guest worker plan that works and is similar to what I have described with no path to citizenship.

To get unemployed people in California to work in the fields, the state would need to allow them to keep their unemployment insurance if they worked temporarily. We also have an enormous prison population that could be tapped for field picking, but we would have to have security guards to keep them from walking.

Let me see if I can address the comments clearly. I am not lamenting being able to move my operation to Mexico. I’m a Califonia grower no matter what who did farm tomatoes in Mexico (Los Mochis) not for the labor benefits but because I wanted to have a winter tomato season instead of just a summer program here in California. My experience in Mexico watching what my neighbors were doing to the workers, the unsantitation in the field, unsafe use of pesticides makes me appreciate what we produce here.

What appears to be edited out was the guest worker program I am talking about requires the worker to go home at least two months a year and not become a resident. The program would be partially or completely funded by the industry. The problems justmne complains about with the influx of families and the drain on social services started when the Bracero Program was eliminated and the workers started sneaking in their families with them. This program will not allow that. Only the number of workers estimated to fill the need will be allowed in and must work for a certified farmer. The rest will come here at their perilplus the risk of sanctions to the grower who hires them.

As for crop insurance or subsidies, I have never participated mostly because small vegetable and fruit growers do not qualify for most federal programs. I just take my lumps in production losses as they come. Forutunately we don’t have a lot of problems in Avila Valley. Our three full time vineyard workers get at least $600/week 52 weeks out of the year – rain or shine. Two weeks off at Christmas/New Years plus all national holidays paid. Family comes first so if something comes up they know they can take off. Since they have been with us going on 16 years and helped us build the business, they have shares in the company. This is not uncommon in our industry.

We did work in documented vetern pickers to show our citizen crew how it was done on the third day. That is when the exodus started when they saw what was expected. As for the 5 page questionaire, we wanted to see who was in this unemployed work force and get a feel how we could work them into our business (tasting room, winery) – not just in the field. This was not an experiment designed to fail. We were honestly dissapointed that we couldn’t keep more of the pickers. Again, this work was done in cool Avila Valley mostly for only 6-7 hours a day and we still couldn’t get normal production. It would have been much harder toil under the usual hot and long hour conditions in the rest of the State. I welcome your comments.

I can confirm after being and seeing farming practices in Los Mochis myself many yrs. ago those farming practices you mentioned, but large American farms product wouldn’t and couldn’t test out if poisonous substances were found.

Be truthful here, do you not agree with my response to Typoqueen that the peripheral costs to Americans having Latinos here working, living here legal or not is astronomical?

You’re free to respond in any way you like but I’m looking for a simple yes or no.

“justme” – sit down because yes to a degree I agree with you. However, those living here legally are not a big drain as you propose because the majority of the ones I know are solid family oriented citizens who push their kids to excel just like the rest of us. The problem is the second, third plus generations from the illegal side of the population who are not assimilating like other past minority groups. Their horrendous school dropout rate, no work ethic like the ones who originally came here to make a better life, gang affiliations, drain of social services, etc. are the problem. The Guest Worker Program will help put a partial end to some of the illegal immigration (at least in agriculture which is a small part of the total) but we will probably have to assimilate a bunch of this group that is here now because it is going to be hard to find and deport 12,000,000 illegals especially if they lawyer-up which you know will happen.

I agree with your post Mr. Salisbury and I agree with everything that you are doing so I really don’t have any comments regarding your farming practices and I agree with the guest worker program idea. When I stated the issue regarding farmers going to South or Central America I was referring to farmers in general. I’m sure that you are aware that farmers are doing just that. I hate the fact that most of the fruit that I buy is from accross the border mainly because of the reason that you stated regarding the pesticides and chemicals that they are allowed to use but I also like to support not just local growers but family farms.

Lastly, I apologize to you and the other posters for the discourse between myself and ‘justme’ (that sounds kinda funny).

I am quite tired of seeing workers from out of the country working jobs that used to belong to the middle class. I understand that wages will fluctuate with the ebb and flow of the economy, but many vocations just switched to illegals. Hence my resistance to giving workers from other countries any reason for being in this country. The guest worker program may have some merit, but I wonder how one would handle the details. I wouldn’t expect the taxpayer to subsidize any part of the program.

I keep thinking that a small vineyard picking job would only last for a few days. I’m not certain how you can expect to find quality workers for such a temporary position. The only small vineyard owner that I know subcontracts that work to experienced picking crews. They offer the best cost per ton, but I don’t know how difficult they are to schedule. We’re also right back to the illegal worker subject, as I would expect that the subcontractors might be less than truthful about the status of their workers.

As far as testing prospective long term employees, I can’t fault you for putting them on a picking crew to see their work ethic. Your point about it being difficult to find willing and capable workers does have some merit. But I do feel that using a very temporary position to attract suitable long term employees may distort your results.