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January 2006, Volume 12, Number 1

Farm Labor Shortages

In Spring 2005, farmers in the California-Arizona border-area complained of too few workers to harvest lettuce and other vegetables. The farmers said that Border Patrol agents stopped buses bringing workers from Mexico and removed unauthorized workers, which discouraged others from attempting to go to work in their fields.

In Fall 2005, border-area farmers called the labor shortage "critical" for the upcoming 2005-06 harvest, but nonetheless planted 10 percent more acres of winter vegetables. There were 104,000 acres of vegetables and melons in Imperial county in 2004, up from 95,000 acres in 2003, including 30,000 acres of lettuce, 18,000 acres of carrots, 10,000 acres of broccoli, and 11,000 acres of onions.

There were 225,000 acres of vegetables in Yuma county Arizona. Farm sales were $1.2 billion in Imperial and $1.3 billion in Yuma in 2004. Unemployment rates in both counties are high, averaging 24 percent between 1990 and 2004. In September 2005, unemployment rates were about 18 percent in each county.

Jon Vessey, who farms 8,000 acres near El Centro, predicted in December 2005 "Come January [2006], we could see lettuce rotting in the fields because there will be no one to pick it." Tom Nassif of the Western Growers Association used the multiplier argument to justify easier access to foreign farm workers: "Our crops are going to be harvested by a foreign workforce either here or somewhere else. So are we going to export all the other jobs affiliated with farming just because we aren't willing to have a guest worker program?"

One farmer said that Americans wont notice the too few workers "until the price of lettuce goes up to $3 or $4 a head." However, farmers receive less than 20 percent of the retail price for most fruits and vegetables, so that even sharp increases in farm costs are unlikely to make a noticeable difference in the grocery store.

Historically, the border area had one of the most legal farm work forces. Most border-area farm workers are green-card commuters, Mexican citizens with US immigrant visas who live in Mexico and commute daily or weekly to US farm jobs. These green-card commuters are aging, and the younger workers joining the crews are often unauthorized and using false documents. With the Border Patrol checking buses leaving ports of entry for the fields, unauthorized workers have no incentive to return to Mexico and risk being apprehended; once into the US, they tend to keep going north away from the border, where wages are higher.

California-Arizona farmers say that they need 77,000 workers, and estimate that they may be 35,000 workers "short" during the December to May vegetable harvest. These need estimates appear highly exaggerated. According to employment data that farmers provide to EDD, between December 2004 and May 2005, a peak 34,000 workers were employed in three California counties, Imperial, Riverside, and San Bernardino, including 3,900 in vegetables and melons. Even if all workers brought to farms by custom harvesters and FLCs were working on vegetable farms, the peak would be 18,000 in May 2005, and some of these workers are harvesting table grapes in the Coachella Valley.

Stephen Birdsall, Imperial County agricultural commissioner, was quoted in the December 7, 2005 Ag Alert explaining why growers "need" three times more workers than can be employed at any time. Birdsall said. "In Imperial Valley there is a need for at least 10,000 full-time workers a day for the [vegetable] harvest. But the reality is they actually need a pool of about 30,000 workers. For every one person that works they need three people, because one person will only work a third of the time. They will work for a couple of days and then not return and then the grower will need others to replace them."

Some desert-area farmers were reportedly offering bonuses to workers who complete full work weeks. Eric Schwartz of Dole Fresh Vegetables said that it was refurbishing a labor camp for 285 H-2A workers in Yuma, Arizona- Dole hires about 5,000 workers.

Some of the labor shortage reports strained credulity. For example, a Temecula vineyard manager reported that, as a result of tougher enforcement, he had to raise wages to $8 an hour. Until 2004, he reported, he could hire day laborers and pay them $50 for a nine-hour day, an average $5.55 an hour or less than the state's minimum wage of $6.75 an hour.

A report on labor shortages in the Santa Maria area went as follows: "crews that worked nine hours to complete their work last year are now working 10 hours to complete the same harvests... growers are waiting up to a few days to fill vacancies, when they used to get two or three new applicants as soon as a vacancy arose."

In Yuma, a dozen FLCs including the Growers Company were reportedly providing cash advances of $20 to $30 at the end of each work day (la tira) to entice workers. Worker advocates oppose la tira, saying that it helps workers evade taxes and encourages switching from employer to employer. Some workers do not return to the company that owes them the balance of their pay, allowing checks to go uncashed and leaving day laborers with far less than the minimum wage.

The Arizona Republic profiled chili pepper farmer Ed Curry, who said he wants 120 workers but has only 60 to 70 because of the combination of more Border Patrol agents and higher-wage jobs in construction and other nonfarm sectors. Curry called the H-2A program too bureaucratic; in 2004 some 42 Arizona employers were certified to employ 181 H-2A workers. Curry pays chili pickers a piece rate wage and guarantees them $5.48 an hour, but complains that some cannot pick fast enough at this piece rate to earn the wage.

Some border-area farmers were reportedly considering filing a request for H-2A workers. All foreign labor certification requests are handled in DOL offices in Chicago and Atlanta, which would have to deal with an emergency request for foreign workers. If DOL proves unable to handle the request, farmers could ask DHS to approve their request or ask Congress to create a border-commuter seasonal worker program under which legal farm workers would live in Mexico and commute daily to US jobs.

Napa county growers did not complain of labor shortages, a reflection of higher-than-average wages and established networks that can quickly bring workers from other parts of the state. Seasonality is decreasing as growers employ workers almost year-round to tend their vineyards, with January to October employment more common than in the past.

COA Data. According to the Census of Agriculture, Imperial county had 466 farms with 476,500 acres of irrigated land in 2002, but only 114 farms and 75,000 acres were devoted to vegetables and melons, whose sales were $289 million in 2002. Some 356 farms reported hired labor expenditures of $93 million in 2002, and 264 reported another $44 million in contract labor expenses. Imperial Valley farmers reported hiring 8,438 workers directly in 2002 (one worker hired by two farms is reported twice), including 3,400 hired 150 days or more and 5,000 hired for less than 150 days on the responding farm (CA County table 7).

The COA reported that Yuma county had 66 vegetable farms and 96,000 acres of vegetables and melons in 2002. Some 280 farms had $100 million in direct hire farm labor expenditures in 2002, and 190 farms had $61 million in contract labor expenses. Yuma county farmers reported hiring only 8,300 workers directly in 2002 (one worker hired by two farms is reported twice), including 3,900 hired 150 days or more and 4,300 hired for less than 150 days on the responding farm (AZ County table 7).

Blake Schmidt, "Farm labor shortage in Yuma gives rise to cash pay," Yuma Sun, December 18, 2005. Christine Souza, "Worker shortage makes immigration reform urgent," Ag Alert, December 7, 2005. Jerry Hirsch, "Picking a Battle Over Shortage of Farmworkers," Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2005. Susan Carroll, "State farmers lose workers, profits to border sweeps," Arizona Republic, November 3, 2005. Kate Campbell, "Imperial Valley farmers face critical shortage of workers," Ag Alert, November 2, 2005. Bob Christie, "With harvest nearing, farmers fear shortage of workers from Mexico," AP, October 22, 2005. Miriam Jordan, "Labor Squeeze Along the Border," Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2005.

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