Ag Today July 3, 2017

Labor shortages leave some California growers searching for workers


Reports of worker shortages and millions of dollars in crop losses are getting lots of attention these days.

One case that has raised some concern comes from a grower-shipper association in Santa Barbara County that estimates at least $13 million in strawberries, broccoli, leafy greens and other produce was left in the field to rot last year because there weren’t enough workers to harvest them, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.

One grower in Mendocino County, desperate for workers, arranged a deal with the local sheriff to have low-risk inmates from the county jail work in her vineyard. She’s used four to six inmates during the past few years.

What’s causing the shortage? Although many believe President Donald’s Trumps aggressive crackdown on illegal immigrants has plugged the pipeline of undocumented workers, that’s only part of it. Tougher border enforcement, drug cartels and the hefty price of being smuggled across the border have all played a part in the lower number of workers from Mexico.

And in agriculture, where more than half of the workers are estimated to be undocumented, the dwindling supply has had far reaching consequences. Worker shortages, coupled with higher value crops, and the availability of water has helped fuel the growth of permanent crops that can be harvested by machine, such as almonds, pistachios and walnuts.

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have not reported any major problems, yet. One of the heaviest demands for labor will come later this summer when hundreds of workers will be needed for the raisin harvest.

Employers, frustrated over a lack of a immigration reform, have turned to guest worker programs, like H-2A, to supply their labor needs. In agriculture, farmers are recruiting workers from Mexico to harvest crops from oranges to wine grapes. As part of the program, an employer can bring in temporary workers for up to 10 months, but they must provide housing and transportation among other things.

Although farmers say H-2A is only a temporary fix, the number of H-2A positions has grown from about 1,500 five years ago to about 13,000 positions this year, said Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

“When you compare that to the 475,000 workers needed during peak season, it may not seen like a big number,” Little said. “But there is no question that farmers are looking at it.”