The life and perils of a Central Coast farmer

May 3, 2024

Andy Caldwell


Family farms are disappearing across America including here on the Central Coast. That is because farming is subject to more risk than virtually any other sector of our economy.

Nonetheless, two organizations have published a “study,” read that an attack, on our local farmers contending that farm labor is a dangerous occupation, that farmworkers are not earning a living wage (while ignoring the seasonal nature of the work and insinuating racial inequity!), and that somehow, it is up to farmers to keep increasing wages to keep up with the inflation caused by “Bidenomics,” as if money is no object.

They also cite the lack of affordable housing – who isn’t complaining about that? And get this, they also complain about the costs associated with illegal immigrant status!

California farmers are subject to greater unique costs and risks than other farmers. California farmers have been forced to purchase new diesel-fueled equipment (trucks and tractors), and soon they will be required to replace their equipment again with electric trucks and tractors.

Along with the unpredictable costs of fuel, packaging, fertilizer costs and the like, weather patterns can destroy a crop overnight. Strawberries, for instance, cost some $40,000 per acre to produce. Do the math, a 1,000-acre strawberry farm has production costs of $40 million!

Farmers are also struggling with the same inflation that is hurting businesses and consumers alike. Ironically, California farmers are also struggling with the highest farm labor rates in the country! Regarding a living wage, as the “study” indicates, the majority of farmworkers come here from Mexico. Our local farmworkers, on average, earn more per hour here than they earn for an entire day in Mexico

Moreover, strawberry workers can earn up to $30 per hour by piece-rate compensation. Nevertheless, our farmers must compete with these and other foreign producers whose wages and production costs are orders of magnitude lower than ours!

What is completely lost in this discussion? Profit margins. Artificially raising the labor rates for farmworkers will have a greater disparate effect as the recent “living wage” for fast food workers, namely, companies going out of business!

That is because farmers don’t have the luxury to raise the price of the fruits and vegetables to keep pace with inflation because they are price-takers, not price-makers. That is, because of major chain grocery store consolidations, there are fewer buyers in the marketplace. Farmers are forced to take the price the stores are willing to pay, regardless of the costs the farmers incurred in growing the produce.

With respect to the dangers of farm labor, the one true risk assessment having to do with the dangers of any particular occupation is reflected in the cost of worker’s compensation rates. “Work comp” is the insurance employers must buy to cover workplace injuries. Whereas, the “study” would have you believe that farm labor is as dangerous as construction, the truth is worker’s compensation rates for construction are four times higher than farm labor rates.

Tragically, regarding the cost and availability of farmworker housing, farmers have been more than willing to construct housing, except for some “extenuating” circumstances. Here on the Central Coast, one farm housing project was burned to the ground by an arsonist during construction. A federal agency blocked another construction project in deference to tiger salamander habitat. Further, the county generally prohibits the construction of farmworker housing on ag lands because the land is not zoned for “development”.

Farmers could solve their labor costs and our area housing shortages by doing what others have done all over the state. They could sell their land to developers resulting in more homes and fewer farms and farm labor jobs, but who wants that?

Andy Caldwell is the executive director of COLAB and host of The Andy Caldwell Radio Show, weekdays from 3-5 p.m. on News-Press Radio AM 1290.


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Stop with the, “Oh, the poor farmers” schtick. The overwhelming majority of farmers I know on the Central Coast are very well off. I also know that most of them are staunch anti-immigration, yet almost their entire workforce are immigrants, and many of them undocumented.

And you lost me at “Bidenomics”. The middle class has continued to shrink since Reagan and his “trickle-down economics” slashed income tax for high earners and corporations with the blatantly naive (or knowingly fraudulent) claim that they would pass on those savings instead of doing what they always do: hoard wealth and make money for their shareholders.

Every Republican President since Reagan has drastically increased the national debt. The lie is getting old and tired.

Everyone and everything is exploited in this country. Get used to it.

Weird, I know many local; Non Industrial farmers ofany varieties doing well here, and producing clean organic food at competitive prices to the absolute carcinogenic crap Big Ag makes; which corporations own, run, and exploit the land and labor. But what do facts or truth matter in this current America where it’s ok for politicians to lie through their teeth so much they face over 50 federal lawsuits and eat up the courts time because they refuse to own their lies? Some people just LOVE to stir the pot and cause divide. Maybe Our writer here doesn’t care about healthy food by the looks of his photo, no judgement, just pointing out an observable fat-c.

And that’s just another reason our family is taking our farm to a different state. My kids don’t deserve this nor is our hard work ethic appreciated anymore. This isn’t my great-grandfathers state anymore and it won’t be mine. Keep up the fight!

I’m truly sorry to hear that. Welcome to the new California. Best wishes.

You forgot to mention that government agencies are trying to take the farmers’ water. Look at the Cambria Community Service District and how they are trying to use eminent domain to take water from the farmers and school district.

It’s all about screwing over the common working man. There is no confusion or debate.

My heart bleeds for those farmers. In 2022 they shattered all records by bringing in nearly $2 billion in revenue in Santa Barbara County, a 5% increase over 2021 and though 2023 figures are not in, I suspect they were well over $2 billion in revenue. Don’t let Andy fool you, they are making plenty of profits and can afford to pay their workers a fair wage.

Sad to say but that is same problem with money. You have to spend it for pleasure or hoard it in a thicker mattress. Even with free fertile land and paid for equipment, farming within the costal influence is doomed. The cost of energy, people with energy and the legal expenses make hard work unaffordable, especially if you need a house too. For those who have, will continue have but the next generation, thanks to prop 19, will have to sell due to the new assessments for multi properties. Yes, as a result of prop 19 promoted by the California Board of Realtors, the buying and selling industry. How dare there be generational wealth, ever heard that before?