Imperial Valley farmers face critical shortage of workers
Crops may rot in fields as winter vegetable harvest looms.
Farmers in the Imperial Valley are sounding the alarm as they watch a disastrous labor shortage unfold. They report that one major valley grower, unable to fill field-crew positions through usual means, went to the local state employment office a couple of weeks ago and listed 1,600 jobs. Four workers applied.
"Currently the Imperial Valley and Yuma regions are being faced with a real labor crisis," said Luawanna Hallstrom, chairwoman of the California Farm Bureau Federation Labor Advisory Committee. "This looming labor shortage is the worst we've ever seen and it threatens farmers' ability to fully harvest this year's winter vegetable crop."
"This year could turn out to be a real disaster," Imperial Valley farmer Donnie Emanuelli said. "There has been a rapid decline in available labor. I used to have people coming by the ranch asking for jobs, but that doesn't happen any more."
In Imperial Valley, vegetable crops are planted on about 100,000 acres and production generates more than $505 million in on-farm revenues alone. Fruit and nut crops are worth another $56 million. Overall, Imperial Valley agriculture for all crops is valued at more than $1.2 billion. In Yuma County, Ariz., vegetable crops are planted on about 225,000 acres and overall production is valued at about $1.3 billion.
Harvesting of winter vegetables in the region, which produces about 90 percent of the nation's fresh winter produce, is four to six weeks away.
Hallstrom said crop losses due to the lack of workers could approach a third to half of the total production due to the inability to be harvested. Some labor experts have said worker shortages could total as many as 40,000 workers. The two growing regions in recent years have needed a work force of about 77,000 to produce and harvest crops.
Imperial County Farm Bureau leaders say many factors are contributing to the dire outlook for labor, including a broken immigration system; increased border enforcement; competition for workers from other industries, including construction and hospitality services; lack of a viable guestworker program; intensified hassles at the border for those trying to cross legally; and an aging work force that will not tolerate the border disruptions, constant stops, personal searches and violence. Complicating the situation are actions by vigilante groups and ill-timed bureaucratic snafus and delays.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last week, Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia of El Centro and state Sen. Abel Maldonado of San Luis Obispo said the current hours-long delays for those legally entering the United States to work are unacceptable. They pointed out that traffic at the border crossing at Calexico is being reduced due to construction on northbound lanes and the second entry port, Calexico East, opens at 6 a.m., which is too late for those who commute to Imperial Valley farms each day to work.
They told Chertoff, "This situation is unacceptable for members of the Legislature, such as us, who represent districts with large numbers of agricultural interests and workers. ... We cannot afford to lose one job or leave one field unattended."
Opening the Calexico East port three hours earlier would significantly reduce wait times and congestion, the legislators said.
"I'm not a politician, but what I know is this: I tried to get a crew of 15 last week just to weed artichokes," said Imperial Valley grower Emanuelli. "They didn't get me the 15, they got me 11, and this isn't even the busy season. You'd think there are 15 people out there who'd come to work, but they're not there.
"I gave my labor contractor a week's notice to get the crew and he said he just couldn't get the workers. Part of the problem is that if a worker has any kind of vehicle ticket—parking, speeding, fix-it—they're not allowed entry at the port. I know right now we're one or two crews short as we start our citrus harvest.
"But, it's not just this year," he said. "It was last year too. In the last few years we've been short workers and lost fruit because of labor shortages, and that's a fact.
"As hard as it is to cross the border, if a worker can earn in two or three days what it used to take five days to earn, they stay home. It takes as long as three hours every day to cross the border. Right there you're out 20 percent to 40 percent of your work force."
Imperial Valley citrus and vegetable grower Steven Emanuelli, who is president of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association and Donnie Emanuelli's son, said, "It's a coming crisis and something needs to happen soon to head this off. We won't really know until it comes time to harvest and there's no labor. That's what I see coming.
"We were already having a problem last year, but it wasn't a big crisis because the market was bad and some people didn't harvest all their crops. But now we think there might be a good market and everybody's going to need labor at the same time. That's going to create a big problem."
Steven Emanuelli recently joined a group of Imperial Valley farmers and local elected officials on a trip to Washington, D.C., where they met with officials to explain how dire the labor situation has become and to ask for help in solving the many problems and issues surrounding agricultural jobs.
"We told them we'd like to see a viable guestworker program and get a reliable flow of workers from Mexico. People in the United States don't want to do this work. It's going to take something like AgJOBS, (immigration reform legislation pending in Congress) to really solve this problem for the long term."
Steven Emanuelli said he thinks that to help Imperial Valley farmers get through this year's winter vegetable season there needs to be an emergency guestworker program put in place. He emphasized that there needs to be well-coordinated, streamlined access for legal workers routinely commuting to the United States for jobs.
"We're not going to know we're in an emergency until it's too late," Emanuelli said. "People in Washington need to understand that this is an emergency. The time is quickly coming when we won't be able to harvest because our crops will have been in the ground too long and be ruined because no one was there to do the work," he said.
"The American public doesn't realize what's at stake. They probably won't notice until the price of lettuce goes up to $3 or $4 a head. We're worried. We've planted. We're on our way and the workers aren't here."
Jack King, CFBF national affairs manager, has accompanied a number of Farm Bureau delegations to Washington, D.C. where California farm labor issues have been a priority for discussion.
"The situation that's shaping up in the Imperial Valley emphasizes what our members have been saying all along—immigrations policies and laws need to be changed. It's clear there is a labor shortage, more serious in some regions than in others," King said. "We're fearful that what happened with our raisin crop will occur in other areas of the state as we head into next year's crops."
King said recent reports from Washington, D.C. indicate that immigration overhaul will be one of the first major items taken up by Congress in the new year. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has already identified the issue as a priority, King said.
That action, however, won't help Imperial Valley farmers with their winter vegetable crops that are maturing right now.
(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.