Nearly every farmer in San Diego County will tell you that picking is a skill.

Loosen the button on the avocado, and it ripens too soon – something supermarkets do not want to see. Pull too hard on a heavy ripe orange, and you risk tearing the rind, making it unsellable at the market. Harvest asparagus too soon or too late, or cut it too far above the soil, and a farmer loses money.

Clare Leschin-Hoar LogoCalifornia’s growers rely on migrant labor to do the majority of this backbreaking work, but tightening immigration policies have left farmers short on crews, a development that prompted California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to send outgoing Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano a letter last week asking immigration officials to stop targeting agricultural workers, and focus on violent criminals instead.

“I am unfortunately again receiving troubling feedback from farmers in California that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is increasing I-9 worksite audits against agricultural employers,” she wrote.  “Many farmers and growers in California informed me that their business and livelihood are at risk due to a shortage of legal harvesters, pickers, pruners, packers, and farm workers.”

Enforcement, she says, is exacerbating an already existing labor crisis.

San Diego County mushroom grower Gary Crouch told AgAlert that ICE audits ripple through the farm.


We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?

“The workers believed that ICE would get their addresses, go to their homes and pull their wives and babies out of their homes and deport them,” he said. “A mushroom farm is like a dairy: You have to deal with mushrooms and every day you pick, pack and ship. There is no labor to do this physical work we do o the farm.”

A farmer I spoke with said he is reluctant to go on record for fear of attracting immigration officials.

“We are short on labor. We’re putting off infrastructure jobs that should have been done months ago. We lost a lot of avocados. They dropped on the ground and we couldn’t get them off [the tree] in time. That stuff that falls on the ground? It’s done. Ever smell a rotten avocado? Imagine a whole grove. It stinks out there,” he said.

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego Farm Bureau, said local farmers are wary of speaking out in public on the issue in part because of enforcement, but also because they worry about blowback from the the anti-immigration crowd.

“We’re a county of specialty crops,” said Larson. “We’re not mechanized. All of our product goes into the fresh market – oranges, strawberries, tomatoes. In San Diego, we virtually have no mechanized crops, so every farmer is vulnerable.”

How tight is the labor supply? A survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation in December showed that 71 percent of farmers who grew labor-intensive crops like tree fruits, vegetables, table grapes, raisins and berries experienced employee shortages. Many worry that problem will only get worse if immigration reform continues to  languish in Congress.

“We need the House to pass one bill on immigration reform,” said Larson. “We met with [Rep. Juan] Vargas and [Rep. Susan] Davis already. And we’re meeting with [Rep. Scott] Peters soon. We’re hoping to convince them to take leadership positions to get some manner of bill through the House.

“It’s not a food security issue just yet, but it will be if Congress can’t get their act together.”

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    This article relates to: Active Voice, Food, Immigration

    Written by Clare Leschin-Hoar

    Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her clare@leschin-hoar.com.

    3 comments
    Mike
    Mike

    I'm confused about this issue because I don't think I understand the exact problems on either side of the debate. It sounds like when the farm industry hires workers at illegal-immigrant wages, they get an intermittent work force with low skill and that leads to lower revenues and stinky avocado farms. But if the industry were to hypothetically hire legal workers at good wages, one can assume they might get a more consistent work force with higher skill which may lead to higher revenues. I would hope that someone has performed a cost-benefit analysis on this issue. So as an average consumer, I can only assume the farm industry made their choices based on their own good reasons. Now that they've made their bed, they will have to sleep in it. I'm also not sure if immigration reform will affect the farming industry that much. If employers continue to look for low wage workers, then the newly legalized immigrants will seek work elsewhere that pays them better...leaving the employers once again with a low skill and inconsistent labor force. But maybe the problem isn't about what farmers are willing to pay the workers. Maybe the problem is about what consumers (like myself) are willing to pay for the products. The mushroom farmer from the above story, can he reasonably compete with all the other players in his sales territory? Can he lead the industry for improvements in the way business is conducted? What stands in his way to raise prices so he can pay his workers better? Which lawmakers are setting the policies to impede fair competition and which lobbyists are paying for that benefit? Maybe that last statement was overly dramatic, but maybe digging deeper would reveal more root causes as to why the mushroom farmer in SD can't find a more stable work force.

    Mike
    Mike subscriber

    I'm confused about this issue because I don't think I understand the exact problems on either side of the debate. It sounds like when the farm industry hires workers at illegal-immigrant wages, they get an intermittent work force with low skill and that leads to lower revenues and stinky avocado farms. But if the industry were to hypothetically hire legal workers at good wages, one can assume they might get a more consistent work force with higher skill which may lead to higher revenues. I would hope that someone has performed a cost-benefit analysis on this issue. So as an average consumer, I can only assume the farm industry made their choices based on their own good reasons. Now that they've made their bed, they will have to sleep in it. I'm also not sure if immigration reform will affect the farming industry that much. If employers continue to look for low wage workers, then the newly legalized immigrants will seek work elsewhere that pays them better...leaving the employers once again with a low skill and inconsistent labor force. But maybe the problem isn't about what farmers are willing to pay the workers. Maybe the problem is about what consumers (like myself) are willing to pay for the products. The mushroom farmer from the above story, can he reasonably compete with all the other players in his sales territory? Can he lead the industry for improvements in the way business is conducted? What stands in his way to raise prices so he can pay his workers better? Which lawmakers are setting the policies to impede fair competition and which lobbyists are paying for that benefit? Maybe that last statement was overly dramatic, but maybe digging deeper would reveal more root causes as to why the mushroom farmer in SD can't find a more stable work force.

    wigglwagon
    wigglwagon

    The United States legally admits over a million immigrants every year. Do the farmers actually think Americans will believe that they cannot find enough workers? The truth is that farmers want to keep the supply of labor over inflated so they can continue paying cheap wages and NO BENEFITS.