Farms see big crop of workers
Growers, once hurting for laborers, are benefiting from a migration as jobs in food service and construction dry up.
By Jerry Hirsch
What a difference a bad economy makes. The collapse of the construction industry and a slump in the restaurant and food service sector have sent thousands of people back to looking for work on California farms, which not so long ago were hurting for workers.
"We have had no trouble getting workers for the winter vegetable harvest," said Jon Vessey, who farms 7,000 acres near El Centro. "There is a bigger supply of labor this year than last year or the year before."
Labor experts, union officials and farmers themselves say they are seeing this happening across the state.
Before the recession, Vessey's operation was a prime example of a growing shortage of agricultural workers in the state's coastal plains and inland valleys, which had seen farmworkers leave by the thousands for better jobs in the city.
Three years ago, things were so bad that Vessey posted openings for 300 temporary workers at the state Employment Development Department in Calexico, near the Mexican border.
One person showed up, and he lasted just half a day working the fields.
At the time, farm interests held up Vessey's experience as evidence of how badly the nation needed both a guest-worker program and a way for illegal immigrants to gain legal status.
Whether there was a true shortage is still a matter of debate. The lack of workers could have been the result of a reluctance by farmers to raise wages enough to persuade people to do farm work, said Phil Martin, a UC Davis farm labor economist.
"You can't talk about need or shortage without talking about wages," Martin said.
Farmers and agribusiness interests generally say they can't afford to pay much more than the minimum wage because of international competition, Martin said.
"So what happens is that people move on to higher-paying jobs," he said. "Farm labor is a job, not a career. When people have other options, they get out of farm work. Construction is a frequent first step up the job ladder."
The lack of workers a few years ago was most acute in border areas such as the Imperial Valley and Yuma, Ariz.
"That had a lot to do with the Border Patrol ramping up sharply. If you were illegal and got across with false documents, you would get away from the border area very quickly," Martin said.
Even so, farming continued in those regions, he said. "I don't think a lack of labor ever prevented people from planting crops if they thought there was a market for what they were producing."
The recession has ended the debate for now.
"A lot of people who lost their jobs have come back into farming from the construction industry and food service," said Tom Nassif, chief executive of Irvine-based Western Growers Assn., whose members farm and pack about 90% of the produce and nuts grown in California.
California's jobless rate rose to 9.3% in December, and construction was one of the industries hardest hit, according to the state EDD.
Construction jobs fell 10.8%, or almost 93,000 jobs, from December 2007. During the same period, agriculture employment rose by 2,000 jobs, or 0.5%.
In the restaurant industry, the need for servers, cooks and dishwashers has declined as many chains are reporting year-over-year sales declines of 5% in restaurants open a year or more. As they get laid off, some of these workers head back to the farm.
Farmers also need fewer workers this year, Vessey said. And that has helped reverse the shortage.
"There are less planted vegetables than we have had in the past," he said. "Farmers have cut back because of the recession and because of the drought." Growers are reluctant to plant if they aren't sure they will have enough water to grow their crops, he said.
Other farmers also report an adequate supply of workers. Bart Fisher is in the middle of harvesting about 1,500 acres of broccoli and iceberg lettuce in eastern Riverside County and said he had enough workers.
Farther north, in Yolo and Sutter counties, Charlie Hoppin is turning away workers.
"I feel bad I can't hire more," Hoppin said, adding that there was a good supply of equipment operators who had lost jobs grading housing developments and in other construction projects.
"We are also finding that the people who are working for us are more stable. There are fewer absences, and they work hard and are reliable," said Hoppin, who farms about 3,000 acres of melons, rice, wheat and corn.
The environment is far different from three years ago, when California farmers unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to pass an immigration bill that included a guest-worker program for farm labor and a way for the illegal immigrants already in the industry to gain citizenship.
At the time, growers in the winter farm belt of California and Arizona said they could fill only half the 50,000 field hand positions needed to gather the region's ripening produce.
Many farmers still believe that Congress needs to pass an immigration reform bill that addresses their concerns.
"The underlying problem remains unresolved, especially for Mexican citizens who work here," Fisher said.
Organizers for the United Farm Workers of America union also report a plentiful supply of workers on farms now. The problem is that they are not documented, said Maria Machuca, the union's spokeswoman.
"What is the point of bringing more people here to do work when there are already people here, able and willing" to do farm work? she said. "They just don't have documentation."
The farmworkers union objected to the push last month by farm groups to get the outgoing Bush administration to change the rules of the current guest worker, or H-2A, program. The changes were approved just before the change in administrations.
The new rules relax the process growers use to prove they tried to obtain documented workers.
The union is pushing for the AgJOBS bill, proposed legislation also supported by farm interests, which Congress has previously debated but never passed. It would provide a way for undocumented workers to gain legal status as long as they continue to work in agriculture for a time.
Vessey said he was frustrated with how agriculture gets tarnished for its reliance on undocumented workers while other industries in boom times are just as reliant on the same workforce.
"They just refuse to talk about it," Vessey said. "We still have a predominantly illegal workforce, and we want a legal workforce. We can get that through immigration reform."