More farmers report shortages of harvest labor


Issue Date: August 1, 2012
By Christine Souza
Martha Peña of the Farm Employers Labor Service talks with Carlos González Gutiérrez, consul general of Mexico in Sacramento, after Gutiérrez spoke to the California Farm Bureau Federation Labor Policy Recommendation Committee.
Photo/Christine Souza

As harvest seasons build toward their annual peak, farmers across California report considerable shortages of harvest labor, leaving some fields and orchards unpicked.

"This was the worst year that I've ever experienced in labor; even going back and talking with my family, we've never seen anything like this," said Brad Goehring, San Joaquin County winegrape grower and farm labor contractor.

Goehring reported his labor contracting business fell 40 percent short of meeting labor needs.

"We were turning down all new business and didn't take any new business this year. By the time it got to the end of certain seasons, our costs were 300 percent higher," he said.

Goehring, who began seeing a lack of workers last spring, said farmers need immediate solutions.

"I don't know what the realistic, viable solutions are, given the makeup of our legislators (in Congress), but we need something to be done. We cannot survive like this," he said.

Goehring is a member of the California Farm Bureau Federation Labor Policy Recommendation Committee, which met in Sacramento last week. Committee members from around the state reported labor shortages. One commodity that seems to have taken a significant hit, according to committee members, is berries—strawberries, blackberries and raspberries.

"Typically, as stonefruit comes on, our workers begin to leave, but this year we were 150 employees short when that happened," said Allan Price, a strawberry and row crop grower from Santa Ana. "We had to let some fields go, and this is the first time it's ever happened."

Berry grower John Eiskamp of Watsonville said he experienced shortages with labor for picking raspberries and blackberries.

"It has been the most challenging year I've ever had for labor," Eiskamp said. "We are down one crew this year, so we are short about 70 people. The consequence of that is if you get behind, fruit that you should be picking is not being picked.

"We've always said it's going to have to get worse before it gets better, and I think we're seeing that now."

Others reported that the productivity of crews they are hiring is significantly below previous levels, and that because labor is in high demand, employees will move on if someone pays a slightly higher rate. A few members on the committee acknowledged that problems with the lack of labor are taking their toll and that stress levels are high.

The committee also heard from Carlos González Gutiérrez, consul general of Mexico in Sacramento. The consulate he oversees provides services to Mexican citizens such as facilitating passports, birth certificates and documentation. He and Deputy Consul General Gilberto Luna met with the committee to discuss reasons for the labor shortage.

"Migratory flows between Mexico and the United States have come to a halt," Gutiérrez said. "It is a trend that has been consistent for the last two years, and I'm talking about almost the same number of people returning to Mexico as the newcomers from Mexico (are coming to the U.S.)"

Fewer people are crossing the border into California from Mexico to work in agriculture, Gutiérrez said, for a number of reasons, including the U.S. recession.

"We have the best possible network in terms of distributing information that there could exist between two countries. They (Mexicans in Mexico and those in the U.S.) send signals where there are jobs and when there is a lack of jobs," Gutiérrez said. "They are very efficient in sending information to Mexico in terms of, there is a recession and there are no good jobs."

Mexico is currently experiencing better economic conditions and a growing middle class.

"We are a country that for the first time in our history has experienced 18 years of economic stability. We are very hopeful about the future for Mexico," Gutiérrez said.

As Mexico grows its middle class, Gutiérrez noted that the country has experienced a reduction in the birth rate, which is down by 40 percent.

Another reason Mexicans are not returning to the U.S., Gutiérrez said, is that crossing the border is more dangerous and the cost has skyrocketed.

"We want migration to be a choice, and we want that choice to be undertaken through legal and secure channels," Gutiérrez said. "It is a binational challenge to develop ways to create those legal channels for those flows to take place between Mexico and the United States. We need to wait for Congress. We have said very clearly, a temporary worker program is an unavoidable way to get to the future."

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said farmers and their organizations have worked for many years to provide an improved system to allow immigrant workers to enter the U.S. legally to work on farms.

"CFBF is working through the American Farm Bureau and with our state counterparts to develop a national policy that all of Farm Bureau can support," Wenger said. "Once we accomplish that, we can build a national coalition that includes all of agriculture, so farmers can speak to Congress about our needs with a unified, powerful voice."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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