Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

Labor shortage a concern to valley farmers

Jul 13, 2012

The Central Valley is the agricultural center of California, producing a wide range of fruits, vegetables, and other commodities - all worked by the hands of thousands of farm workers. However, these crops may be threatened this season with a reported decrease in the number of workers. 

Paul Betancourt, a farmer out of Kerman and a former president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, says a shortage could prove devastating for the industry.

“The fact that we're having labor problems this early in the season is not good, because we're just getting into the peak of season when there's demand for hand labor to get harvests out of the field. So, if we're having a problem now, that doesn't say good things about how things are going to go for the rest of the season,” said Betancourt.

While the Central Valley is no stranger to labor shortages, Bryan Little of the California Farm Bureau explains it's not a typical concern for the ag industry. He says the last time a shortage became a major problem in the Valley was in 2008, but he says reports of fewer workers this year are a cause for concern. 

“This is the first time in a while that we've heard farmers telling us that they're having difficulty finding enough people to do what they need to do. So I don't think it's cyclical. Something's changed, but it's pretty hard to put your finger on exactly what it is,” said Little.

The California ag industry requires around 475 thousand workers every peak season from August to October, but according to the California Farm Bureau, this year's supply of workers for labor intensive crops is short by a third. As Little explains, if there aren't enough workers, at this rate, 30 percent of crops will simply go un-harvested, which is not only a loss to the farmers, but can have a rippling effect in the local economy.

“ That's less money in the farmer's pocket that will go out to buy goods and services in the community, he can employ fewer people, and those people are going to be able to buy less in the local community,” said Little.

No one truly knows the cause of the labor shortage, but many ag industry groups speculate it may be related to the issues of immigration and increased border security. According to the California Farm Bureau about 70 percent of the farm workers are undocumented immigrants, using fraudulent documentation. And tightened border security and enforcement may have caused many to stay in their home countries. Others suggest that a wave of violence in Mexico among drug cartels could be to blame. People like Charles Waters of the Ayala Corporation, a labor contracting company, say a guest worker program that would legally bring necessary workers to California would eliminate the shortage, and also provide jobs to thousands of workers.

“We need to work to get a worker's program for our laborers from south of the border, we really do. Because those that yell about and complain about illegal, or folks from south of the border, those are the people who for years and years and years, have been picking these crops. These complainers about them, that complain about them coming here, these people are not really the ones who are, they won't step on the field and harvest the crops. It takes these special, hard-working type of people to do it,” said Waters.

Still, others are not convinced the immigration is the cause of the recent labor shortage. Betancourt says immigration has affected the ag industry for years, but border security initiatives have diminished its influence in the last decade. 

“I think the immigration thing has played out already before. That's been an issue for years. The border, pretty well, sealed up after 9/11. So, people aren't going back and forth across the border like they were before. So, I would have expected more of an instant problem the first few years after 9/11 if border security was an issue,” said Betancourt.

Regardless of the cause, farm bureau leaders say they are lobbying Congress to pass laws that will help provide a steady labor supply for the future. As for this year, farmers say the shortage could result in laborers flocking to the Valley in search of work, but if not, many of their crops may never make it out of the fields.