Even amid high unemployment, California farmers say they long for a larger labor force.
Nearly two-thirds of farmers who responded to a California Farm Bureau Federation survey said they were challenged to find enough workers to help tend and harvest crops this year.
The Sacramento-based bureau said Tuesday that its online survey included responses from nearly 800 of its members about the harvest season.
Sixty-one percent of respondents said they experienced worker shortages of varying degrees. Among farmers who grow labor-intensive crops tree fruits, vegetables, table grapes, raisin grapes and berries 71 percent reported employee shortages. To cope, farmers said they offered higher wages, delayed pruning/harvesting, turned to mechanization or did not harvest some of their crop.
Bureau President Paul Wenger said the survey showed the need for more-effective programs for hiring migrant workers. "Through this survey, California farmers have given us a glimpse into what may happen if current trends continue," Wenger said. "Without the creation of a secure, effective program that allows people from foreign countries to work legally in the United States to harvest crops, we could see continuing or worsening problems, especially for small or midsized farms."
Farm groups have called for immigration laws that would allow foreign residents with identification to continue to work in agriculture or to enter the U.S. legally for that specific purpose.
Immigration was a hot-button issue during the recent presidential campaign. Both President Barack Obama and Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney said they supported programs making it easier for those trained at U.S. universities to get green cards and for farmers to hire temporary farmworkers legally. However, while Obama supported the DREAM Act to give temporary legal status to those who arrive in the U.S. before age 16, graduate from a U.S. high school and have no criminal record Romney flatly opposed it.
California farmers rely heavily on an immigrant work force, and the state farm bureau says efforts to hire U.S.-born employees have been mostly unsuccessful, even during the recession.
Wine grape grower Diego Olagaray of Lodi told the farm bureau that he typically hires between 50 and 100 workers during peak times for thinning, pruning and harvesting. Yet he struggled finding an adequate workforce this year. "In seasonal employees, we were down more than 50 percent, and that was true for the entire area," Olagaray said. "Early this year, we just couldn't build our crews up, whereas in the past, that was never an issue."
Next year, Olagaray is considering planting fewer acres and possibly going to a different trellis system for grapes that is less labor-intensive.
"Australia has been incorporating these trellises for a number of years, because they do not have the source of workers that we do, so they had to resort to it earlier. I feel like we're having to go that route," Olagaray said.
A detailed report, "Walking the Tightrope: California Farmers Struggle with Employee Shortages," can be seen at www.cfbf.com.