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Farmers report early signs of labor shortages

Issue Date: May 9, 2012
By Steve Adler

As crops around the state are being planted, pruned, fertilized and watered in anticipation of a bountiful harvest, there's a dark cloud forming overhead. The concern on farmers' minds is whether there will be enough agricultural workers to get everything harvested.

Reports of labor shortages are springing up around the state. The farther north of the California-Mexico border one looks, the greater the concern that the number of agricultural workers needed for harvest work may fall short.

The shortage is already manifesting itself on the Central Coast, where many vegetable farmers say they find it difficult to fill out their harvest crews. San Luis Obispo County grower Tom Ikeda said his operation is in full harvest mode right now and he needs more help. He added that his neighbors report the same thing.

"We started noticing labor getting tighter a couple years ago. Then last year it got even worse, and this year it seems like it is getting to be much more challenging," he said. "Our harvest has come into full swing in the last month, and that is when we really started noticing that we are having a tough time filling out harvest crews."

Ikeda is part of a vegetable cooperative on the Central Coast and said members of the cooperative are sharing crews to harvest the perishable commodities in a timely fashion. Harvest activities will continue through November in the region.

Ikeda described the crew-sharing arrangement as a "win-win" for employees who have more steady employment and for farmers who are able to get their crops harvested at the peak time.

Farther inland, Lodi-area farmer Joe Valente reported that farmworker numbers are down in his area as well. The main crops requiring workers currently are grapes that are being suckered and shoot-thinned, asparagus that is being harvested and cherries that are nearly ready to be picked.

"Here in San Joaquin County, it is a balancing act," he said. "If the asparagus is still going and the cherries are being harvested and there is grape work being done, then things will be really tight. It all goes back to Mother Nature."

Joe Colace, president of Five Crowns Marketing in Brawley, said he has the good fortune of farming near the California-Mexico border. He estimated that between 250 and 300 members of his harvest crews legally cross into the United States from Mexico as day workers, returning to their homes in Mexicali at the end of the work day.

"We are able to fill our crews. We have been in the produce business for 56 years and we have a longstanding reputation with these local workers. And we are at the border, so we have the benefit of the green-card worker, the day worker. So we aren't feeling quite the impact as our fellow growers and shippers the farther you get from the border region," he said.

Colace blamed much of the worker shortage on two things: the inability of Congress and the president to pass a meaningful immigration reform package, and the unwillingness of most Americans to do agricultural work.

"If you cut to the chase, our government is not listening to us. They do not want to work with agriculture in this case and because of that I am afraid that five years from now we are going to be in a real crisis situation," he said. "Illegal immigration has become a political hot button, but members of Congress aren't seeing both sides of the coin. They are only seeing it from their own political benefit. Our nation has to understand that we are providing very safe and affordable food and yet that could be jeopardized if the labor force begins to shrink again."

Colace said his company and other farming operations have tried to work with the state Employment Development Department in an effort to hire unemployed Americans, but those efforts have ended in failure.

"We have on several occasions submitted to EDD requests for 100 workers, 200 workers and what we get is minimal, less than 5 percent of our request," he said, noting that of the 5 percent who do come out to work, most quit within four hours.

Colace said even offering wages of $12 to $14 per hour has not been enough of an incentive for these unemployed people.

From a statewide perspective, Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of labor affairs, said he is hearing from farmers who are not seeing the usual number of employees returning in the spring.

"A lot of the people that I have talked with are very anxious about what the future might hold this year. So we will have to see the situation unfold, but right now a lot of growers feel things are not developing this year the way they normally do," he said.

Little attributed this change to factors including a greater presence of federal agents along the border, dangers associated with border crossings and new realities in Mexico.

"There is a changing demographic in Mexico where their population is getting older, women in Mexico are having fewer babies, and what that means is that there are fewer people who are making the journey to America because there are job opportunities in Mexico," he said.

A recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, noted that the number of immigrants coming into the United States from Mexico has declined significantly and there may now be more people leaving the United States and going to Mexico than vice versa.

According to the report, the sharp downward trend in migration from Mexico began about five years ago.

"I think that the labor supply 10 years from now could be very different from what it is right now. If the Mexican work force continues to contract to the degree that it looks like it is going to, that could be a real problem for us," Little said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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