Desperately seeking a farm labor solution ( The Packer )

I was talking the other day with Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for California Farm Bureau Federation about the issue of farm labor relating to California vegetables.

I asked Little about the level of concern about the farm labor, and if there are any indications about what that will mean for growers.

“I don’t have any reason to expect that it has gotten any better,” Little said, noting that he has gotten a couple of calls from growers to asking him, “Am I going to have workers this year?”

“I got that exact call from an asparagus producer in Stockton,” he said. “I had to honestly tell him that, ‘Your guess is as good as mine.’”

Little said there has been recent publicity about immigration enforcement actions in California, making both farmers and their falsely documented workers alarmed.

Their potential employees are concerned about going out in public and taking the risk of being detained and deported, he said.

I asked Little what growers are doing to respond to farm labor uncertainty.

The main thing they are doing, he said, is offering workers more money. “I’ve talked to a lot of growers lately who are offering $13 per hour and more for harvest labor, or intend to when the season comes around, because they feel like they need to do it.” On the central coast of California, employers are offering $15 per hour. Currently, the minimum wage in California is $11 per hour, increasing every Jan. 1 until 2022, when it tops out at $15 per hour.

When labor can be 60% of production costs for some crops, recent wage hikes are significant, he said.

“You wonder how long you can continue to do that because we know ag commodities are not the kind of thing you can just raise the price on and expect to be able to cover (higher costs),” he said. Commodity markets are set by the larger market, not the producer.

What other ways are growers adjusting?

Little said California growers are apparently adjusting their crop mix in response to labor shortages. “When you see the decline of asparagus in the Stockton area over the last ten years, that has had something to do with it,” he said. Massive increases in almond and walnut production may be in part tied to the fact those industries aren’t as dependent on labor compared with perishable crops.

California’s wine grape industry has been changing their cultivation practices by taking out old vineyards that don’t lend themselves to machine harvest and putting in new vineyards that do, he said.

“Farmers are looking at the availability of labor and are tending to concentrate what labor they have on high-value crops like strawberries, where they can recover the increasing labor costs with the prices being brought by the commodities they are growing,” he said.

Meanwhile, the hope for mechanical harvest of strawberries, lettuce and other crops still seems to be years away, he said.

Faced with the vice grip of these realities, Little said the California Farm Bureau seeks farm labor solutions in the context of the attempted fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Some lawmakers want to move forward with mandatory E-verify, but the agriculture community has said that can’t happen unless they create a viable means for the industry to be able to continue to have a labor force.

One suggested solution by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte would be to require current falsely documented farmworkers, some working in the U.S. for more than a decade, to return to their country of origin for 45 days over a two-year period, or perhaps 45 days in one stretch. The workers could then enlist in the guest worker program for the attempt to enter the U.S. as temporary agricultural workers.

“Given the recent experience that people have had over the years with these kinds of programs, we are concerned that people wouldn’t be willing to do that,” Little said.

If mandatory E-verify were to pass, agriculture would have still have a workforce largely composed of people not eligible to work in the U.S., Little said.

“In a lot of ways, that would be the worst of all possible worlds,” he said. “We would have gotten E-verify imposed on us and we would have no solution to the ag labor problem.”

California Farm Bureau, like Western Growers and other groups, is trying to get the message to Congress. Recently the group flew a small group of employers and longtime employees to talk about the issue.

They told lawmakers that the issue of the current farm workforce needs to be solved so workers now in the U.S. won’t be separated from their families and have assurances they are not going to be detained and deported.

If there is power in a story, perhaps the telling of it will move the needle toward a solution that benefits the U.S. consumer, growers and all the hard-working field laborers that deliver fresh produce to America’s tables.