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Farmers short-handed in fields, finds survey
farm worker pic
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act gives qualified farmworkers the chance to earn visas. - photo by Journal file photo

Farms in California aren't missing produce, they’re missing workers.

More and more growers are having difficulty finding seasonal employees to work in the fields, according to a survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation. Thirty percent of farmers surveyed reported shortages in employment. As a result, farmers are either diversifying crops, paying higher wages to entice workers or postponing picking until hands are available.

So what’s causing the sudden lack of labor?

California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little said the lack of farm labor is a direct result of decreased immigration from south of the border. Little cited an improving Mexican economy, harsher border security and risk of deportation, and national competition for work as contributing factors in the labor shortages.

“The Mexican economy is getting better,” said Little. “People don't feel the need the need to migrate.”

Little said many previous immigrant farm workers are now middle aged, and are settling down back in Mexico rather than working in the fields, leaving an unfilled gap for farm labor. A gap that Little says American workers aren’t willing to fill.

“We’re kind of running out of options,” said Little. “Kids don't want to do that kind of work.”

If the shortages continue, farmers will have no choice but to raise wages in order to lure in more workers.

However, some experts are leery on whether or not a pay raise will actually happen.

Gregorio Billikopf,  labor management farm advisor with the University of California, Davis, said that despite the lack of labor, farmers won't jump the gun to raise wages.

“I really don't think that we’re going to see a raise in wages,” said Billikopf. “Nothing like this is ever simple.”

Billikopf echoed Little's concerns regarding the lack of domestic interest in farm labor, stating in contrast to popular belief, immigrant farm workers actually enjoyed working in the fields. Last year, Billikopf performed a study of over 200 farm workers in the state. The study asked workers on a scale of one to five what they believed working conditions on farms were like, with one being “horrible” and five being “fantastic.”

The results were more than  surprising.

On an average, California farm workers said that their working conditions could be categorized as a four, or “very good” working conditions.

“There is a sense of gratitude involved with the work,” said Billikopf.

Despite Billikopf’s findings, the numbers continue to dwindle, especially in Stanislaus County. Long time Turlock grower and president of the Western Growers Association, Don Smith, said that people simply don't want to work on farms anymore.

“Field labor is definitely on the short side, especially in Stanislaus County,” said Smith. “We have a situation where people don't want to do this kind of work.”

Smith sees the drop in available farm workers leading to more mechanization of crops. He gave the example of the state's tomato crops, which were once purely handpicked, and are now 100 percent mechanized.

However some crops, like asparagus and melons, can’t be harvested by machines and still need “expert hands,” according to Smith.

Hands that the state is running out of.

The federal government has also addressed the issue in the Immigration Reform Bill that was passed in Senate earlier last month. The new immigration bill allows individuals with temporary work visas and undocumented workers who can show that they worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in the two years immediately preceding Dec. 31, 2012, to obtain a “blue card,” which would qualify them for continued lawful employment solely in agriculture.

Under the Senate bill, those blue card workers would then be eligible for permanent resident status in three to five years.

The bill is also expected to spike the annual inflow of temporary workers by roughly 1.6 million in 2014, and subsequently double today’s inflow to roughly 1.3 million, according to numbers from the Center for Immigration Studies.

Yet, with the bill still in limbo in the House and migrant workers continuing to disappear, the outlook is anything but promising.

“The potential disaster, whenever it's going to be, is huge if something is not done,” said Billikopf.