Agriculture producers face dropping supply of harvesters

By CAROL LAWRENCE Scripps Howard News Service Published:

VENTURA, Calif. -- Ventura County agriculture producers are facing a rising labor shortage for which they see no solution anytime soon.

Growers and the labor contractors that hire a mostly Mexican workforce say the lack of harvesters worsened this spring, causing portions of the county's highest value crops to go unpicked.

The reasons they cite behind smaller crews -- tougher border patrols, aggressive deportation and harder and riskier border crossings -- are tied to federal immigration reform and out-of-state hands.

The labor shortage "was acute this year, and I'm anticipating it will get worse next year," said Craig Underwood, owner of Underwood Ranches in Camarillo. "The concern is building."

In response, some growers and contractors have raised the harvesters' typically low pay and pushed benefits, but they say it's unlikely anyone else will or even can do the backbreaking and skilled handpicking required for strawberries, citrus and avocados.

Growers now say they are struggling to find irrigators, tractor and truck drivers and farmhands.

It's time, state farm agencies, industry experts and growers say, for the federal government to replace the current temporary farmworker program with one that is simpler, less expensive and less restrictive.

"The most effective thing to do is address the issue at the federal level," said Bryan Little, the California Farm Bureau Federation's director of labor affairs. "That's really the solution to the problem: create programs that enable us to get an adequate and readily available workforce."

Hand-harvesting heavily depends on a largely undocumented Mexican workforce, and that makes the agriculture industry particularly vulnerable to a labor shortage, wrote the authors of a 2008 study on challenges facing Ventura County agriculture.

The study reported 91 percent of California's agricultural workers were born in Mexico, 33 percent had green cards and 57 percent were unauthorized. Additionally, 99 percent of the newer harvesters, the Mixtec-speaking people from Oaxaca, were unauthorized.

The study -- authored by California Lutheran University business and economics professors, including leading economist Bill Watkins -- used a farmworker survey done apart from CLU of 13 counties for the findings.

A potential labor shortage was "the most serious threat to Ventura County agriculture," the authors wrote. It would require growers to raise wages, cause some to leave the industry and others to shift to crops that could be mechanically harvested. The state Department of Food and Agriculture reported in late 2010 that "labor instability" has caused some farmers to stop growing high-value crops and others to move growing overseas.

Other farming states are also experiencing a decrease in agriculture workers that experts attribute to recent declines in immigration.

For the first time in two decades, flows of unauthorized Mexicans into the U.S. have dropped significantly, as determined by a decline to 6.1 million living here from 7 million in 2007, according to recent findings by the Pew Hispanic Center.

, part of the nonprofit Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

The flow has slowed because of fewer U.S. jobs, tougher border patrols, more dangerous border crossings, increased deportation, lower Mexican birthrates and Mexico's improving economy, the report estimates.

Richard De Leon, who runs the labor contractor business Servicios Agricolas in Ventura County, Mexico and Arizona, said he has raised wages 5 percent annually over the past few years to abate the dwindling crews.

He now pays $11.50 to $12 an hour, De Leon said, but he was still short by about 13 harvesters at the season's start.

Strawberry giant Reiter Brothers Inc. in Oxnard also "felt the pinch" this spring with 10 percent fewer harvesters, said Saul Aguilar, manager of labor strategies.

Years ago, growers had few jobs and many harvesters to choose from, Aguilar said. But the paradigm has switched, he said, and pickers who are paid by volume now choose which berry fields to work based on which fields will yield the most fruit.

"Harvesters can walk onto your field and see if you have a good crop," Aguilar said. "They determine then and there if they're going to work for you."

Farmers and labor contractors say they just want a guest worker program that simply and cheaply lets Mexican laborers work here.

They say the federal government's guest agriculture worker program, H-2A, is anything but that.

William Reiman, general manager of Catalinos Berry Farms in Oxnard, says complexities and cost make the program "not very workable. It's not ag-friendly."

Reiman wants a program that would provide enough labor to do the harvesting. "It has to be simple and flexible so we have options, and doesn't overburden us with cost."

The program allows employers to bring in foreign workers, typically for one year but up to three, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

Employer requirements are onerous. They must show that there's no adequate local workforce and that no one will be affected by the worker's wages. Employers must also meet conditions involving housing, meals, wages, transportation, compensation insurance, tools and supplies, fees and labor disputes.

"It's incredible, and that's why no one wants to use it," said Rob Roy, president and general counsel of the Ventura County Agricultural Association in Camarillo.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Simi Valley Republican and chair of a House subcommittee on immigration policy and enforcement, believes one solution to the labor situation would be a guest worker program within or as a separate law in conjunction with his proposed bill. The Legal Workforce Act proposes a national mandate of E-Verify, which requires employers to electronically verify that foreign workers are not unauthorized to work in the U.S. The bill defers the E-Verify requirements for the agriculture industry for three years.

Farmworkers "would not be a permanent resident and not have a pathway to citizenship but that would solve the problem in agriculture," Gallegly said. "If they are required to stay in agriculture, we would have 10 times more (workers) than we need right now."

(Contact Carol Lawrence of the Ventura County (Calif.) Star at clawrence@vcstar.com.)

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