A ‘Climate of Fear’ Accelerates Existing Labor Shortages on California’s Farms

A Growing Problem: Strawberries under cultivation in a California berry farm. (Photo courtesy Driscoll’s)

Gilbert Castellanos said he remembers when people “would fight each other to work in the fields.” Today, Castellanos struggles to find enough workers to complete the harvest on his 300 acres of oranges, stone fruits, and grapes in California’s Central Valley. He has abandoned plots because he couldn’t find enough workers to harvest them.

“Now there is no one,” he said, “for the last three or four years. Every year it’s getting worse.”

Castellanos isn’t the only one worried that the once-endless stream of field hands – the majority of whom are undocumented, Mexican-born immigrants – has dried up in California. According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, about 70 percent of Californian farmers reported that they struggled to find workers in 2018, compared with 23 percent in 2014. One farmer interviewed anonymously for this survey said that because of the labor shortage, “We have reduced strawberries from 80 to 17 [acres] in 2018; we had to walk away from half the field because we did not have enough employees to harvest the whole field. This year we only planted 9 acres of strawberries.”

Farm worker statistics

Sources: (1) California Farm Bureau Federation Survey; (2) Pew Research Center estimate from U.S. Census data; (3) California Department of Food and Agriculture; (4) American Farm Bureau Federation estimate. Graphics by Bill Lane Center for the American West

Some farmers with crops like berries, fresh market stone fruit, or melons – which can’t be easily picked with machines – have been forced to watch their produce rot in the fields for lack of field hands; many others are cutting back acreage, or switching to crops that machines can harvest, like walnuts. And the welfare of California’s $50 billion-dollar agriculture industry matters beyond the Golden State: California grows more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.

Some farmers and farm workers suspect that it’s no accident the field hands’ disappearance coincides with the rise of build-the-wall, anti-immigrant rhetoric in mainstream politics. The actual causes of the labor shortage are more complex, experts say.

But the federal administration’s harsh enforcement stance against unauthorized immigrants isn’t helping the labor shortage. In the midst of a charged political climate and widespread anxiety around immigration, California finds itself also grappling with what will happen in the long run to its farms – and the country’s food.

A Problem Arises from Both Sides of the Border

The roots of California’s agricultural labor shortage extend much deeper than anti-immigrant vitriol. In Mexico, where 84 percent of California’s agricultural workers were born, improved local economic opportunities have combined with more expensive and dangerous border crossings to dampen the appeal of immigrating to the United States. Since 2005, the Pew Research Center has actually reported a net trend of reverse migration between the United States and its southern neighbor: each year, more people are crossing the border going into Mexico than coming from Mexico. Analyzing U.S. Census data, Pew also reported that workers without legal status comprise much of this southern exodus, and that California lost 750,000 undocumented immigrants from 2007 to 2017 – more than any other state.

Unauthorized Immigrants in California: A Population Estimate

The Pew Research Center analyzed Census data and employment records to estimate the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States, their counties of origin, and their approximate population in different states. They estimated that undocumented immigrants had dropped in number to about 10 million in 2017, down from a high of over 12 million a decade earlier. They also estimated a decline in Mexican-born undocumented immigrants nationwide of about seven million in 2007 to less than five million in 2017.

Click on the image below to view an interactive graphic.

Pew Center graphic – click to view interactive

Pew Research Center

At the same time, Mexico’s population structure has transformed. Mexico’s birth rate remained above six children per woman for most of the 20th century, especially in poorer rural areas from which U.S. farmworkers have migrated. But by 1995 – in one generation – the birth rate fell to three children per woman, and has continued dropping toward the United States’ two-child average. Fewer youths have the determination and desperation to cross the border for work, not just because the prospect is comparatively less attractive, but because fewer children have been born into circumstances that would drive them to leave.

As a result, young immigrants aren’t replacing California’s current field hands as they age and retire.

Californian farmers could perhaps weather the gradual effects of reverse migration and ageing workers if it weren’t for the industry’s worst-kept secret: most field hands don’t have legal status (estimates vary by federal, state, and non-profit sources, but they converge around 50 percent or higher). The American Farm Bureau Federation, an industry lobby, is blunt in its assessment of how unwelcoming immigration policies would cripple America’s farms. “If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 to $60 billion [nationwide]…the reality is that a majority of farm workers are in the U.S. illegally,” its webpage warns. “It’s time to deal with reality.”

Living “In The Shadows”

Seniors, many of them retired farm workers, line up for hours at the Watsonville Farmers Market to receive $20 vouchers towards fresh produce.

Seniors, many of them retired farm workers, line up for hours at the Watsonville Farmers Market to receive $20 vouchers towards fresh produce. (Photo by Sierra Garcia)

On a sunny afternoon on California’s Central Coast, seniors lined up at the Watsonville Farmers Market and waited, many for several hours, for a $20 fresh produce voucher. They wore cowboy hats and baseball caps, sneakers, and thick-strapped sandals. Everybody spoke Spanish, and when one woman was asked what proportion of the waiting seniors had worked in agriculture, she replied, “All of us.”

Watsonville grows a variety of fresh produce, especially strawberries (an international berry company, Driscoll’s, is based there). Its farmers market is two blocks long, and the farm stands display proud banners that announce, “Vendemos Lo Que Sembramos” – we sell what we sow. It’s a microcosm of thousands of agricultural communities clustered across the state, and mirrors the anxiety that has rippled through them as animosity towards Hispanic asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants in particular has intensified on the national political stage.

“People are really afraid,” says Antonia Chavez, a retired mushroom-picker and proud U.S. citizen. Luis Perez, the owner and founder of 20-acre Perez Farms, concurs. “When the government announces that there will be raids in a certain place, people won’t go to work because of the fear that they’ll be taken,” says Perez. “It’s affecting the agriculture a lot.” He began noticing labor shortages about three years ago, when relatives in farming first lost crops because they couldn’t find enough help for the harvest.

Luis Perez, the owner and founder of 20-acre Perez Farms.

“People won’t go to work because of the fear that they’ll be taken.” Luis Perez, the owner and founder of 20-acre Perez Farms. (Photo by Sierra Garcia)

Yolanda Vallesteros Acosta, a retired field hand from Mexico with decades of experience harvesting California’s bounty, says, “I’ve lived here my entire life, and I have never seen [farmers and companies] searching for field hands to work.” This anomaly over the last three years is proof that the labor shortage is not a result of gradual, long-term changes, she believes. “It’s because of what Trump is doing.”

Mexican Deportations DecliningGraphic by Bill Lane Center for the American West


In certain ways, the Trump administration’s pro-deportation rhetoric doesn’t measure up to its actions. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportations for the last three years are on par with the lowest deportation rates during the Obama administration – and fall well below the 2012 peak in deportations.

Nevertheless, the president’s attitude towards undocumented immigration, which he has decribed on numerous occasions as an “invasion,” has taken a psychological toll that extends beyond the workers without legal status. Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley, says that threats of deportation harm his entire workforce, including legal immigrants and citizens. He explains that “there’s a climate of fear” among everyone.

Searching for Replacements

Earlier this year, the Department of Labor proposed measures to streamline the application process for the seasonal agricultural workers’ visa, known as the H-2A visa. In July, the president praised the changes in the H-2A visa as a boon for both foreign workers and domestic farmers, promising “a very, very much easier, less cumbersome program.” H2-A visas issued have swelled from fewer than 90,000 in 2014 to nearly 200,000 in 2018 as farmers scramble to hire more field hands.

Farmers respond to tight job marketBill Lane Center for the American West

But support amongst farmers for the H-2A program is lukewarm at best. In addition to filing the application, farmers must provide housing, food, and transportation for guest workers, so using it increases labor costs. The American Farm Bureau Federation website says that “entering into the H-2A program has been found to increase the obstacles that farmers face in order to hire and maintain employees,” citing a fourfold increase in federal audits among farmers who used the program. Lupe Sandoval, the Executive Director of the California Farm Labor Contractors Association, calls the guest worker program “a very expensive, confusing, problematic system,” an assertion seemingly echoed by Miles Reiter, the CEO of Driscoll’s.

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“It seems to be intentionally designed to be difficult, expensive, not very timely, and not very flexible,” Reiter said in the Driscoll’s-supported film “The Last Harvest.”

Many farmers are turning to machines instead. But mechanization can’t replace human hands for many crops ( “The Last Harvest” estimates that around 75 percent of fresh fruit grown in the U.S. is still dependent on human labor for some aspect of harvesting).

“We’re not like the central states, [where] you plant a bunch of corn, grains, soy, and everything’s machine harvested,” said Sandoval. “Mom and pop can do that with a couple of workers on thousands of acres.” Machines to harvest strawberries or asparagus have loomed on the horizon for years, but haven’t worked well enough to replace human hands so far. For crops like berries, fresh cherries, fresh market tomatoes, or asparagus among many others, people are still the best option. Labor costs make up upwards of 40 percent of total production costs for certain crops, and have driven farmers to turn to other crops, like almonds, which are lucrative and require few workers to harvest.

Labor costs make up upwards of 40 percent of total production costs for certain crops, and have driven farmers to turn to other crops, like almonds, which are lucrative and require few workers to harvest.

Other farmers, like Michael, have tried to make the vacant jobs more attractive. The benefits are impressive: his workers have retirement plans, healthcare, scholarship options for their children and “a decent wage.” California even nixed the long-standing overtime pay exception for field hands this year, so that farm laborers working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week earn overtime just like employees in most other industries. None of it has been enough to tempt American-born workers into the fields.

“It’s not terrible employment,” added Michael. “It’s just hard, hot, dusty work, and a lot of people just aren’t willing to do something like that.” Indeed, “it’s not like even when the economy was bad we had people knocking down the doors to come work on the farm.”

Vallesteros Acosta, the Watsonville retiree, agreed. When asked whether new groups of workers might enter California’s fields if the labor shortage grows critical enough, she smiled and shook her head.

“When I worked in the blackberry fields, my hands became like this,” she offered, curling her small, wrinkled fingers into claws. “Purple, black, full of pricks from the spines. They always hurt me and gave me such a rash! You couldn’t sleep at night from the rashes. It’s terrible.” She added, “I don’t think an American would bear that.”

Angelica Rodriguez sells berries from her brothers’ farm, Rodriguez Farms.

“In previous years there were a lot of people to work. Now there are no people.” Angelica Rodriguez sells berries from her brothers’ farm, Rodriguez Farms. Two years ago, they lost several acres of strawberries because there weren’t people to work. Photo by Sierra Garcia

A Dream of Reform

Both the California and American Farm Bureau Federations want a solution that combines a better guest worker program with a pathway for existing undocumented fieldworkers to obtain legal status. Western Growers, a major farmer advocacy organization, wrote in a prepared statement from their president Tom Nassif that although they appreciate the Trump administration streamlining the guest worker program, a degree of amnesty for existing workers is also necessary.

Nassif testified before Congress earlier this year to the irreplacable contributions of undocumented fieldworkers, saying “The majority of those falsely documented, here illegally, however you want to phrase it, pay their state and federal income taxes as well as contribute to social security without any hope of ever collecting…[We need] a legal status for our longstanding, reliable, existing workforce and their families.”

Nassif stressed that this plea “is in no part political,” but “based upon the economic future needs of our industry.”

“[We need] a legal status for our longstanding, reliable, existing workforce and their families.” Western Growers head Tom Nassif testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee in April 2019. WESTERN GROWERS

Barring some sort of breakthrough – in mechanizing delicate harvests, in policy, in the willingness of American-born backs and hearts to bend–the outcome may well be a gradual strangulation of many types of grown-in-the-USA fresh produce. Farmers who can afford it will continue to raise wages to try and attract sufficient workers, a cost increase mirrored on the supermarket produce price stickers. Where possible, stores will import more fresh produce from abroad to soften the economic blow to consumers.

But for strawberries, in which labor accounts for half of the total production costs, the price per unit value (the value before processing) has already risen from 69 cents to $1.06 per pound over the last ten years – more than double the rate of inflation. Most of the increase has occurred since 2016.

As production costs creep up for strawberries, mushrooms, lettuce, asparagus, certain kinds of grapes, fresh cherries, and dozens of other fresh fruits and vegetables, some farmers will rip up crops they have tended for decades in favor of mass-planting walnuts or other crops that a machine can harvest with ease. Others, especially small farmers who can’t afford to raise wages enough, will continue to cut back their acreage each year, or give up their farms for good. Factors besides labor costs will influence these decisions, like water availability in drought-prone California, but ultimately farmers are unlikely to invest in crops too expensive for them to grow and for consumers to buy.

Michael says that regardless of their political beliefs, all western farmers know that they need immigrants. But gridlock in Washington has left him with little hope for improvement. He doesn’t think meaningful immigration reform for Californian farmers and farm workers will happen “until something breaks pretty badly – to the point where crops are rotting in the field.”

This article was first published by the …& the West Blog and is republished with permission. You can find the original post here.