US state of California faces agricultural labor shortage

Farmers in California's San Joaquin County, as they count up the gains and losses of the past growing season and sketch plans for the new year, regard with concern reports of labor shortages in some of the state.

Winter vegetable growers in California's Imperial Valley and the US state of Arizona offered bonuses to recruit workers for the current season, and some raisin producers in the southern San Joaquin Valley couldn't find help to handle their crop, according to reports.

Grape grower Bob Lauchland said he saw signs of a tight labor market during the fall harvest.

"Some workers left the area for other crops and the potential for higher wages," he said. "I understand many came back to harvest grapes when prospects for other crops declined."

Lauchland, president of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association, expressed concern about the future labor supply, referring to the border security bill approved Dec. 16 by the U.S. House of Representatives that would increase penalties for employing illegal immigrants and make illegal immigration a federal crime, threatening an important source of farm workers.

But there is little data to show a farm labor shortage.

State records of San Joaquin County farm employment and wages in the last three years show little change in salaries and a small yearly decline in the number of crop-production workers. That might be explained by an ongoing shift of workers employed directly by farmers to those hired through farm labor contractors, said Howard Rosenberg, a farm-labor specialist with University of California Cooperative Extension in Berkeley. While they do the same work, labor contractor employees are counted as business-service workers.

Increased border security already imposed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, could be limiting the number of immigrant workers available, particularly in border areas, Rosenberg said. And economic factors, such as higher wages and better working conditions offered by nonfarm industries, may draw people away from farm jobs.

It is hard for growers to compete, said Mike Robinson, president of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation. "Agriculture is pretty much the entry level for any type of labor for this county." he said. "... There is a lack of entry labor into the agricultural field now.... Immigrants are finding now they don't have to start and stay in agriculture."

Farmers cannot match wages and benefits offered by other industries, Robinson said, because they earn only what the buyers will pay for various commodities, and their prices are increasingly dependent on global forces of supply and demand.

"We don't dictate a price for a commodity," he said. Adding, "agricultural prices have not been... very spectacular lately."

Legislative interest

There is a raft of federal legislation pending on immigration and border security issues. At the Web site of the UC Agricultural Personnel Management Program Rosenberg lists nearly two dozen current bills affecting farm jobs, immigration and border security.

The border-enforcement bill approved by the House and now under consideration by the Senate is one such measure. It would take sweeping action, including construction of a fence along much of the Mexican border and make federal criminals of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now working in the United States. That sort of stricture could create the shortage of workers that worries California growers, Rosenberg said.

"It's a sign of a political atmosphere that threatens the farm industry with a significant slash in the supply of labor," he said.

Foreign workers needed

Agriculture and other industries depend on foreign workers, said Tim Chelling, communications vice president for Western Growers in Irvine.

"Ultimately, the shortage of labor in agriculture is perhaps the first major symptom of a sick national immigration policy," he said.

A well-run "guest worker" program to admit and control a certain number of foreign workers would eliminate many of the problems generated by illegal immigration, as well border-security concerns, he argued.

"You would know who they are, where they are from and where they are going," Chelling said. "It's really a border-security enhancement program."

Without a ready supply of labor willing to work at entry-level wages, California could lose many of its farm commodities, he said.

It's already happened with garlic, Chelling noted.

Despite the annual festival in Gilroy celebrating the pungent bulb, most garlic now consumed in the United States is grown in China and imported.

"Growers and farmers will either use a legal work force here or will use a work force where it's legal and ship their jobs out," Chelling said.

"We think this is overall, big picture, at least a potential crisis, if not a current crisis for all of California, Arizona agriculture," he said.

For consumers, it also raises issues of food quality and safety for products being grown in nations where sanitary conditions, pesticide application and environmental protections may fall short of U.S. standards.