Cunha cited several reasons for the ever-tightening agricultural labor supply.
Fewer workers are coming across the Mexico-U.S. border because of higher costs.
Drug cartel activity along the border also has scared many workers from risking a crossing.
In addition, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up employer audits.
In March and again in mid- to late May, the Nisei Farmers League surveyed labor contractors throughout California to get a better idea about worker availability and crew size.
In March, thinning crews that only a few years ago numbered 20-25 workers were down to 15-16, Cunha said.
Since then, reports now peg crew size at about 12 workers.
Although he didn’t have hard data, Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League, said he’s also heard anecdotally from grower-members that labor supplies were tight and growing tighter.
“There are less people for cultural activities preparing for harvest,” he said.
“I think people are particularly on edge the farther north you get.”
At the same time, Congress continues to debate E-Verify, an electronic system that can quickly verify whether a worker has legal work status.
Bedwell said league members aren’t necessarily opposed to E-Verify as long as Congress and the administration implement comprehensive and meaningful immigration reform beforehand.
Without reform, he said agriculture will eventually outsource production to other countries.
The league also supports Assembly Bill 1544 — the California Agricultural Jobs and Industry Stabilization Act — by V. Manuel Perez, D-Coachella.
If approved, the bill would allow the state to grant work permits to illegal immigrants, allowing them to stay in the state.
Although Bedwell said the bill will have a tough time passing, he said the public awareness it creates will continue to put pressure on federal lawmakers to reform immigration.