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January 2007, Volume 13, Number 1

Farm Labor Shortages

Washington Apple grower Broetje Orchards reported not harvesting 400 of its 5,400 acres of apples, in part because of fewer pickers and higher wages. Broetje typically hires 1,700 harvest workers, but hired only 1,400 in 2006, and raised piece rate wages from $18 to $20 a bin, up 11 percent, to attract additional workers, and did not pick lower-value apples for juice.

Snake River Fruit Growers also complained of labor shortages during the Fall 2006 apple harvest. Local observers attributed fewer pickers to wages of $10 to $12 an hour in construction, landscaping and hospitality, while most farmers paid $6.50 an hour.

In 1987, the Washington Apple Commission anticipated labor shortages and ran commercials in California promising high wages and help with legalization. Workers flooded the state, and many were unable to find jobs. Evergreen Legal Services sued the commission and its advertising agency on behalf of jobless pickers, and won $617,000 in a settlement.

California-Arizona. The Yuma, Arizona and adjoining Imperial, California areas produce most US winter vegetables such as lettuce, and growers there have been complaining of labor shortages for the past three years. However, in 2005-06, they planted more lettuce and other vegetables, prices dropped, and the lettuce unpicked was largely due to low prices, not too few workers. For 2006-07, Yuma-area farmers are planting 15 percent less acreage.

The Yuma winter vegetable industry relies on 3,500 green-card commuters, legal immigrants who live in Mexico and commute daily to US jobs. These workers are aging, and with waits of an hour or two to enter the US, and then another hour of travel to the fields and more Border Patrol checks, fewer are willing to do farm work.

The Wall Street Journal on December 19, 2006 reported on the efforts of Steve Scaroni to develop a mechanical harvester for romaine lettuce. Scaroni hires 1,500 workers in winter, and 700 in summer, to cut and core lettuce that is placed in plastic-lined boxes for delivery to fast-food restaurants. Scaroni privately developed a machine to cut the lettuce, and workers riding on the machine did the coring and trimming, but there was damage to the mechanically harvested lettuce.

In the December 6, 2006 Ag Alert, Contra Costa nursery producer Mike Vukelich said: "We are able to get all the low-skilled labor we want...but in some cases when we do not give raises, workers leave for higher paying jobs."

Victoria Bradshaw, secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, in December 2006 told the California Farm Bureau Federation that construction was a competitor for farm workers that offers "higher wages and long-term employment." Bradshaw said that she wants to have workers "look at agriculture, not just as a job, but a vocation and not a job of last resort."

Citing the September 2006 law, SB 1690, which allows the state Employment Training Panel to pay for training workers in seasonal industries that increases their productivity, Bradshaw urged farm employers to develop training programs that give "the individual the skills to do multiple things within the agricultural industry." Failure to create careers in agriculture will lead to "an aging workforce and not a replenishing workforce." Bradshaw said that a white paper, "California's Food Chain at Work: Ag production, Processing, Distribution and Support," will guide state policies on farm labor.

New York. The New York Times on December 24, 2006 reported that farmers in western New York were losing workers to immigration raids and fear of raids. Maureen Torrey's family, with 10,000 acres of vegetable and dairy farms, said that farmers had become fearful of complaining about the raids for fear of inviting more. ICE says that it responds to complaints, and residents speculate that Marshall Farms in Sodus New York, a large breeder of ferrets and dogs for pharmaceutical companies, was raided in October 2006 after someone complained.

Cliff DeMay, a private labor contractor who supplies workers to farms in seven states, says that farmers quoted by name criticizing ICE were at risk of raids. However, few farmers requested H-2A workers, blaming the AEWR of $9.16 an hour.

New Mexico chili pepper farmers also complained of labor shortages in 2006. About 80 percent of red chilies are machine harvested, but almost all green and cayenne pepper are hand-harvested. Chili acreage totals 17,000, half the 35,000 acres of the mid-1980s, and includes 40 percent red chilies, 30 percent green and 30 percent cayenne. Red chilies yield 3,000 to 3,500 dry pounds an acre. Some chili growers are considering switching to mechanized crops, including cotton, pecans and alfalfa.

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association, saying that 9,000 workers were needed for December-April harvest, feared labor shortages. One grower said the standard piece rate was $1.90 a box of berries picked.

Farmers in the Rocky Mountain News on September 9, 2006 blamed a new state law cracking down on illegal migration for discouraging workers from coming to the state. The Colorado law, which goes into effect January 1, 2007, requires employers to verify Social Security numbers and save proof that workers are legal. The state will perform random audits and employers face a $5,000 fine for the first violation and up to $25,000 for the second offense.

Nina Bernstein, "Immigration Raids Cause Fear on New York Farms," New York Times, December 24, 2006. June Kronholz, "Immigrant Labor or Machines?" Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2006. Daniel Gonz lez, "Shortage of workers imperils Yuma crops," Arizona Republic, November 21, 2006. Joe Estrella, "Labor shortage costs Valley fruit growers thousands of dollars," Idaho Statesman, November 6, 2006. Hal Bernton, "With shortage of workers, apple crop falls on rotten time," Seattle Times, October 25, 2005.