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Seventy-three completed surveys were analyzed, and 62% of those responding (45 growers) indicated they had experienced challenges in finding workers this year, according to Western Growers.
“It’s difficult to know why the workers who have traditionally been here aren’t coming to the fields now,” said Jason Resnick, general counsel for Western Growers.
An improving economy in Mexico, combined with a weaker economy in the U.S., could be reducing the flow of immigrant workers. What’s more, Resnick said the Obama administration has deported 400,000 illegal immigrants since coming into office, which is more than twice as many as President George W. Bush deported in eight years.
“Whether that means part of our workforce has been deported is hard to know, but certainly words gets around and it has to have a chilling effect.”
The survey found that farm labor positions needed by growers ranged in length from one month to a year or more, with 72% of those who responded indicating they need employees for six months or more.
The survey covered farms in 19 counties, with Santa Barbara having the most responses followed by Monterey, Ventura, Fresno and San Luis Obispo counties.
Thirty-eight growers provided economic estimates of losses caused by labor shortages. Seven said they did not anticipate any losses; eight growers said they anticipated losses between $40,000 and $100,000. Thirteen predicted losses between $101,000 and $500,000 and two respondents indicated losses could be more than $1 million.
Resnick said Western Growers and others lobbied many years for the AgJobs program, which included revisions to the guest worker program and a pathway to citizenship for workers already in agriculture. However, the Republican Party opposes the pathway to citizenship in the AgJobs bill, he said.
Resnick said only a few California growers currently use the existing H-2A program because of the program is burdensome, expensive and prone to delays. “We are going to need to see significant changes to a temporary agricultural worker program before we start to see growers using the government program.”
Other alternatives, including improved guest worker programs and plans to employ existing workers in agriculture, haven’t picked up momentum.
“There doesn’t seem to be much courage in Congress to make that happen, even though farmers are experiencing labor shortages and crops are dying in the fields and more of our agriculture and food production is being moved offshore.
The long-term result of a tight labor market probably will be less fresh produce grown in the U.S., Resnick said.
“I’ve heard of growers cases of growers who are planting less or they are moving operations to Mexico or other places offshore, or moving to grains, cottons or other crops that can be easily mechanized,” Resnick said.