Worker shortage threatens state crops

August 6, 2012


A plaintive, years-long cry from California farmers worried about an adequate supply of harvest laborers now is being heard statewide as the prediction – often scorned by critics — begins to materialize.

And while the looming shortage might not affect San Luis Obispo County farmers, vintners, and ranchers as much as in other parts of the state, there could be a real impact here, according to Farm Bureau legislative analyst Joy Fitzhugh.

“There are a number of farmers who have been telling me that they are having trouble finding labor. People just aren’t coming into California as much,” said Fitzhugh. “However, we don’t really  have the kind of crops in this county that require large numbers of field workers all at the same time.”

Fitzhugh cited numerous issues with which migrant workers and their prospective employers must deal: “Workers are having a bit of a problem being able to take on the jobs because of the new (immigration) regulations,” she said. “If the laborers don’t have absolute (proof of credentials), our guys are reluctant to hire them.”

Skilled packers and pickers are in short supply statewide, but still some people have criticized harvest concerns as an attempt to win sympathy for relaxation of immigration and labor laws. But strong evidence exists to show that the state’s farm workforce has shrunk dramatically. Additionally, the remaining pool of workers is aging.

Along with more rigid regulations regarding immigration and hiring of migrant workers, more crop harvesting is being done with new, specialized forms of machinery. Imported crops are increasingly common.

It’s not easy to track changes in agricultural workforce numbers because jobs are seasonal and most workers are in the United States illegally.

Although wine workers generally earn more money than most farm laborers, their numbers are thinning, too. One Northern California vintner told the San Jose Mercury News last week that he and other growers are looking to expensive mechanized harvesters to prepare for a future when too few workers are available.

The Pew Hispanic Center reported this year that the problem starts at the U.S.-Mexico border, where net migration fell to zero this year. A recent study by the organization found that the number of people intercepted at the border dropped 70%, from more than 1 million in 2005 to 286,000 in 2011. Drug-related violence and increased costs to smugglers are having an impact on immigration.

A former skeptic of the dire employment predictions is changing his tune. Five years ago he scoffed at the fears, but now UC Davis labor economist Phil Martin admits the farming community is in “a period of uncertainty.”

Fitzhugh said the local farm bureau is part of a statewide lobbying effort to bring back the so-called “green card” program.

“Although the term might not be politically correct now, the ‘green card’ program let them come into the country and then leave (when work was finished),” she said. “That is what the agricultural community has been hoping for, and has actually been lobbying for, to get that program back — because it worked.”

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