Golden State Sorrows

July 31, 2013 12:00 AM
Golden State Sorrows

Immigration reform threatens California agriculture and leaves farmers with an uncertain future

As grape vines dance in the wind and fresh fruit ripens waiting to be picked, immigration reform trudges on in California—home to 350 different crops and a diversity of fresh produce that requires seasonal hand labor.

"With too few hands to harvest crops, the landscape of CAlifornia is starting to Change."

Already this year, labor shortages forced fresh produce to rot in fields. Growers say it’s their vital acres of agricultural goods at stake.

With too few hands to harvest crops, the landscape of California agriculture is starting to change. Asparagus grower Barb Cecchini fears it could cause her to not even grow asparagus in the future.

"Labor ranks as my number one, number two and number three problems," Cecchini says. "I’m probably going to get out of the industry in the next five years. I don’t have any plans to plant new asparagus, and you have to have new asparagus coming in all the time."

Cecchini says labor shortages are heavier than ever before. This spring, she was 25 workers short. An improving Mexican economy combined with uncertainty surrounding the legality of immigrant workers is driving more workers away.

California Farm Bureau says Cecchini isn’t alone. Last year, 61% of surveyed growers reported labor shortages. A situation of too few workers could force many California farmers to make a difficult decision.

"Do I let acres go fallow? Do I sell my land? Do I go into other crops?" asks Rayne Pegg, California Farm Bureau manager of federal policy. "It’s a question of who can survive under that model."

Wendy Moore raises grapes for wine just south of Sacramento. Growing such a fragile crop means the fruit needs to be harvested in a timely manner. She says growers find comfort in knowing a skilled workforce is available at harvest time. Without new legislation, she says that assurance isn’t there.

"This year we extended our harvest by three days, which doesn’t seem like much, but when you have a perishable product, the quality of that product deteriorates as time goes on," Moore says.

Fix H-2A. The current H-2A program isn’t flexible enough to meet her needs, she says. However, Moore has high hopes for the new legislation, which not only replaces that program with a nonimmigrant agricultural visa and blue card program, but addresses granting legal status to illegal workers in agriculture. She says it also carves out a clear path for a steady flow of new, young workers in the future.

Cecchini, on the other hand, isn’t in favor of the legislation. "I think it’s just going to be so cumbersome and so expensive that we’re not going to be able grow crops that are labor intensive," Cecchini says.

"For years, the (agricultural) industry has said that it wants a legal and stable workforce," notes Marc Grossman representing United Farm Workers (UFW). "This legislation offers the relief that they seek. Farm workers can stay in the country and get out from under the vulnerability to abuse that their legal status has plagued them with."

UFW wanted higher wages for farm workers, but the bill was all about compromise, Grossman says. Both parties settled.

Moore says she currently pays part-time employees $1.50 above minimum wages, and full-time employees receive full health care benefits. Neither she nor Cecchini can afford to pay more without driving up prices at the store.

Pass Reform. Without a final immigration reform bill passed in Washington, D.C., all parties involved know California agriculture is at stake, and "Made in America" could become a rare trademark.

Immigration legislation (S. 744), which creates a new visa category for farmworkers and gives leeway for the Agriculture secretary to be flexible with the flow of immigrant workers, passed the U.S. Senate this summer. The bill has a shaky future as it heads into the Republican controlled House, where a large number of conservatives strongly oppose it.

Essential Labor

From the West Coast to the East Coast, finding good labor on the farm continues to be a challenge and hinders growth.

The House supports a bill that sends the current workforce back to their country to reapply for a visa, lists employ­ees under a "seasonal" category and is controlled by the Department of Labor.
This plan could be a train wreck for dairies that rely on immigrant labor to stay functional, says Alan Novak, Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania executive director.  

PDMP members visited Capitol Hill this summer to earn support from the House. The group talked about the importance of providing a safe and healthy environment for their workers, the value of reliable labor, the difficulty in finding Americans who are willing to work on a farm and the impact it could have on the economy.

50% Of crop workers are estimated to be undocumented.

2 States—Texas and California—account for more than one-third of all farmworkers.

19% Of crop workers hold green cards or other work authorization forms.

33% The number of present-day farmworkers born in the U.S.

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