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‘Climate of Fear’ accelerates labor shortages

Sierra Garcia

Stanford University

Editor’s note: The following article is the first in a two-part series on the impact of the foreign-worker shortage on agriculture. The second article in the series will address support of an improved guest-worker program.

Gilbert Castellanos said he remembers when people “would fight each other to work in the fields.” Today he struggles to find enough workers to complete the harvest on his 300 acres of oranges, stone fruits and grapes in California’s Central Valley. He has abandoned plots because he couldn’t find enough workers to harvest them.

“Now there’s no one,” he said, “It’s been happening the past three or four years. Every year it’s getting worse.”

About 70 percent of California farmers reported that they struggled to find workers in 2018 compared to 23 percent in 2014, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation. One farmer interviewed anonymously for the survey said that because of the labor shortage he had to reduce strawberry production from 80 to 17 acres in 2018. He planted just 9 acres of strawberries in 2019.

Some farmers with difficult-to-pick crops such as berries, stone fruit and melons have been forced to watch their produce rot for lack of field hands. Many others are reducing acreage or switching to crops such as walnuts that machines can harvest.

The welfare of California’s $50 billion-dollar agriculture industry matters beyond the Golden State. California produces more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.

Some farmers and farm workers suspect it’s no accident the field-hand disappearance coincides with the build-the-wall, anti-immigrant rhetoric in politics. The causes of the labor shortage are more complex, experts say.

But the federal administration’s enforcement stance against unauthorized immigrants isn’t helping the labor shortage. Amidst a charged political climate and widespread anxiety about immigration, California is grappling with what will happen to its farms – and the country’s food.

Problems from both sides of border

The roots of California’s agricultural-labor shortage extend much deeper than anti-immigrant sentiment. In Mexico – where 84 percent of California’s agricultural workers were born – improved economic opportunities have combined with more expensive and dangerous border crossings to dampen the appeal of immigrating to the United States.

The Pew Research Center has reported a net trend since 2005 of reverse migration between the United States and Mexico. Each year more people are crossing the border into Mexico than coming from Mexico. Pew, which analyzed U.S. Census data, found that workers without legal status comprised much of the exodus. Pew researchers estimated the number of undocumented immigrants had declined to about 10 million in 2017 from more than 12 million a decade earlier. They also found that California lost 750,000 undocumented immigrants from 2007 to 2017 – more than any other state.

At the same time Mexico’s population structure has transformed. Its birth rate remained greater than six children per woman for most of the 20th century, especially in poorer rural areas from which U.S. farmworkers have migrated. But by 1995 the birth rate declined to three children per woman. Fewer youths are desperate to cross the border for work.

Californian farmers could possibly weather the gradual effects of reverse migration and aging workers if it weren’t for the industry’s worst-kept secret. Most field hands don’t have legal status. Estimates vary by federal, state and nonprofit sources, but they’re about 50 percent or more.

“If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 to $60 billion (nationwide),” states the American Farm Bureau Federation website. “The impacts of an enforcement-only approach to immigration would be detrimental to the agricultural industry.”

In certain ways the Trump administration’s pro-deportation talk doesn’t match its actions. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportations for the past three years are on par with the least amount of deportations during the Obama administration.

But the president’s reference on many occasions to the immigrant situation as an “invasion” has taken a psychological toll that extends beyond workers without legal status. Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley, said threats of deportation harm his workforce, including legal immigrants and citizens.

“There’s a climate of fear among everyone,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Labor earlier in 2019 proposed measures to streamline the application process for the seasonal agricultural workers’ visa, known as the H-2A visa. The president in July praised changes in the H-2A visa as a boon for foreign workers and domestic farmers. The visas issued have swelled from fewer than 90,000 in 2014 to about 200,000 in 2018 as farmers scramble to hire more field hands.

But farmer support for the program is lukewarm at best. In addition to filing the application, farmers must provide housing, food and transportation for guest workers. That increases labor costs.

“Entering into the H-2A program has been found to increase the obstacles that farmers face in order to hire and maintain employees,” the American Farm Bureau Federation stated.

Lupe Sandoval, the executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractors Association, called the guest-worker program “a very expensive, confusing, problematic system.”

That statement is echoed by Miles Reiter, the CEO of Driscoll’s.

“It seems to be intentionally designed to be difficult, expensive, not very timely, and not very flexible,” Reiter said in the film “The Last Harvest.”

Many farmers are turning to mechanization. But that can’t replace human hands for many crops. About 75 percent of fresh fruit grown in the U.S. remains dependent on human labor for some aspect of harvesting.

“Machines to harvest strawberries or asparagus have loomed on the horizon for years, but haven’t worked well enough to replace human hands so far,” Sandoval said. “Labor costs make up upward of 40 percent of total production costs for certain crops. They’ve driven farmers to turn to other crops, such as almonds, which are lucrative and require few workers to harvest.”

Other farmers have tried to make vacant jobs more attractive. Cannon Michael’s workers have retirement plans, healthcare, scholarship options for their children, and “a decent wage.”

California also nixed the long-standing overtime pay exception for field hands in 2019 so that farm laborers working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week earn overtime. None of it has been enough to tempt American-born workers into the fields.

“It’s not terrible employment,” Michael said. “It’s just hard, hot, dusty work. A lot of people just aren’t willing to do something like that. It’s not like even when the economy was bad we had people knocking down the doors to come work on the farm.”

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