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April 2006, Volume 12, Number 2

Farm Labor Shortages

The Sacramento Bee on January 30, 2006 reported that fewer young and legal Mexican workers were crossing the border daily to harvest winter vegetables. In one survey, the average age of border commuters was 50 and interviews with unemployed local workers found that most preferred to keep looking rather than accept farm jobs. Those who did some farm work reported that workers who can speak English are not expected to be working in the fields.

California farmers had record sales of $34 billion in 2004, and could exceed that in 2005. There were reports of labor shortages in the San Joaquin Valley, including the assertion of Manuel Cunha Jr. of the Nisei Farmers League in the Fresno Bee November 24, 2005 that raisin growers were "short" 40,000 of the 50,600 needed for the harvest. Cunha said he was getting 50 calls a day from growers in Fall 2005 asking for raisin harvesters.

A relatively high raisin price of $1,210 a ton in 2005 and a low price of $100 a ton for Thompson Seedless crushed for wine increased the demand for labor to harvest raisin grapes. For 2006 and 2007, the price of raisins will be $1,260 a ton if the crop is between 380,000 and 399,000 tons.

Adin Hester of the Olive Growers Council said that some olives were not harvested in Fall 2005 because of "a labor shortage" and because many olives "did not size," meaning they were too small to pick. Tom Nassif of the Western Growers Association asserted in a September 18, 2005 article that "You've got construction companies standing at the edge of the fields offering higher wages." Will Rousseau, a vegetable grower hiring 700 seasonal workers in the Phoenix area, was quoted as saying that "We know local folks won't take those jobs, at any price."

Farm employers predicted labor shortages during the fall and winter of 2005-06, especially in Imperial and Yuma counties along the Mexico-US border, where the Border Patrol sometimes stops farm labor buses to check worker documentation. Some Salinas-area lettuce and vegetable growers offered their Salinas-based employees bonuses to induce them to work in the desert where winter vegetables are grown.

Eric Schwartz, president of Dole Fresh Vegetables, applied for 300 H-2A workers, and provided approved free housing even though some elected to return to their homes in Mexico each night.

Growers in January 2006 were reporting that crews were short by about 30 to 40 percent, but they acknowledged that "labor shortages" depend on the price of lettuce. John Baillie, chairman of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and president of Baillie Family Farm/Tri-Counties Packing, said that low prices in January 2006 meant that there were few hours of work: "But say we had a $20 lettuce market -- it [the labor shortage] would really show."

Joe Colace of Crown Farming told National Public Radio on December 29, 2005 that, to harvest 10,000 24-head cartons of lettuce a day, he would normally hire 100 to 120 workers, suggesting an average 100 cartons per worker per day. At the time, Colace said that he had 80 to 90 percent of the workers he "needed;" the workers were provided by FLCs.

Temecula-based Stage Ranch Farm Management vineyard manager Billy Bower on December 8, 2005 said that, until 2004, employers could drive by a local day-laborer hiring spot on Butterfield Stage Road and hire farm workers for about $50 for a nine-hour day of work, but "Now things have cracked down so much that you're forced to hire legals and no one will work for minimum wage."

Seasonal farm workers with other US job options tend to get out of farm work for higher wages, more hours of work, better benefits and more opportunities for upward mobility. Grape picker Ana Rodriguez of Mecca reported on December 6, 2005 that she picks grapes for six to seven months a year, but her medical insurance is good only in Mexicali, so that she must miss a day of work to see a doctor.

Luawanna Hallstrom, the manager of the San Diego-based Harry Singh and Sons, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of a new guest worker program. Hallstrom says that the Singh tomato farm, which operates on 600 acres leased at Camp Pendleton, lost $2.5 million in revenue in 2001 over 45 days due to stepped-up enforcement that found 75 percent of Singh's 400 workers were unauthorized.

The American Farm Bureau Federation in January 2006 released a study estimating that stepped up enforcement without a "viable guest worker program" could reduce farm sales of about $200 billion a year by $9 billion. Bob Stallman, President of the AFBF, said the question is simple: "would you prefer to eat food produced on American soil by migrant workers, or would you rather eat food produced on foreign soil by the same workers?"

The AFBF reported that farms with sales of at least $500,000 a year account for about 85 percent of farm sales and farm workers hired. The AFBF calls farm labor supply and demand currently "in balance," and says that denying farm employers access to the 50 percent of current workers who are unauthorized workers would raise costs and reduce farm incomes.

The AFBF asserts that average farm labor "wages" are $9.50 an hour, between the $6.60 of food preparation workers and the $11 of cleaning workers and $14.35 of construction laborers. The AFBF says that, since farm wages are already higher than food preparation wages, food workers cannot be attracted to farm work, and that attracting cleaners or laborers would mean higher wages.

The AFBF asserts that 10 percent of FVH producers are "financially vulnerable" at $9.50 an hour wages, and that raising farm wages 51 percent to $14.35 an hour would double the share of vulnerable producers to 20 percent.

The AFBF concludes that higher farm wages would lead to more imports but not much additional mechanization, at least in the short term. Instead, AFBF calls for a guest worker program that allows the entry and employment of 500,000 workers a year, compared to about 35,000 under the current H-2A program and allows "the open market to determine wages and benefits" rather than "arbitrary guidelines to protect American workers."

According to AFBF, current H-2A regulations "raise wages and benefits for foreign farm workers above market-clearing levels without leading to an increase in Americans seeking farm jobs." AFBF also asserts that "market forces would prevent any widespread abuse" of workers.

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns said "we just simply have a need for seasonal labor...[without guest workers] there's literally a risk that, especially with fruits and vegetables, we won't be able to harvest them."

Cardinal Roger Mahony, the first chair of the ALRB and head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles since 1985, inspired many Los Angeles-area residents to oppose the House's enforcement only bill in marches in Spring 2006. Mahony became a priest in Fresno in 1964, and mediated disputes between the UFW and growers in the late 1960s.

John Pomfret, "Cardinal Puts Church in Fight for Immigration Rights," Washington Post, April 2, 2006. Jim Wasserman, "Jobs go begging, farmers say," Sacramento Bee, January 30, 2006. William Finn Bennett, "Local farmers fret over rising cost of wages," North County Times, December 8, 2005. Sharon McNary et al, "Growers Want More Workers," Press-Enterprise, December 6, 2005. Dennis Pollock, "Labor shortage sours citrus harvest," Fresno Bee, November 24, 2005. George Raine, "Ripe crops languish in the fields," San Francisco Chronicle, September 18, 2005.

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