Employers & Employment, Immigration, Labor, Law Enforcement, Legislation

Growing Pains: As California Border Patrol Tightens, Farmers Feel the Labor Pinch

From MorganHillTimes.com, Blair Tellers, 31 Oct 2011.

Red bell peppers rot in a field owned by Fiorio Farms. Photo by: Lora Schraft

Red bell peppers rot in a field owned by Fiorio Farms. Photo by: Lora Schraft

“With the way the economy is, you’d think we’d have all kinds of people who want the work, but U.S. citizens here don’t want to do this kind of work,” he said, during a winded account of the immediate and long-term side effects stemming from a major crackdown on illegal immigration.

During harvest, Fiorio – who lost nearly 700 tons of peppers from his other 100-acre farm in Brentwood – said the looming labor shortage is yielding a lower quality of work. When it comes to hands-for-hire, “you’re picking from the bottom of the barrel,” he said, citing frequent instances where half of his crew would leave for the day prematurely.

“They decided they wanted to go home, so they just up and left,” recalled Fiorio. “It was a day-to-day thing, and we just had to adjust. I have never in my lifetime seen it this bad.”

Farmers such as Fiorio are vexed by a nationwide drought in laborers. The pinch directly correlates to the 400,000 illegal immigrants deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this year so far; a record high in the agency’s history according to Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) who sits on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

There are more law enforcement agents deployed on the U.S.-Mexican border than ever before, causing record declines in people attempting to get across, she said.

Fiorio, who described 2011 as a “perfect storm for everything that could go wrong” thanks to labor shortages and unseasonably cool temperatures, warned of a coming threshold where consumers will refuse to pay “x” amount of dollars for a hand-harvested bell pepper.

According to the Western Growers Association (for which local grower Joe Aiello of Uesugi Farms in Morgan Hill is a board member) if Congress doesn’t find a way to address this “crisis,” labor-intensive agriculture (i.e., cherries, lettuce, strawberries, peppers, broccoli, to name just a few) will decline, farms will close and much of America’s food production will be outsourced to other countries.

It will be an unsavory wake-up call for Americans, Aiello said, as “people are used to cheap food, and plenty of it. That’s the problem with the food supply. We probably spend less of our income on food than any other country in the world.”

Lofgren acknowledged passions run high when it comes to immigration, but added “let’s face the facts: There’s not a line of U.S. citizens lining up outside the door to be farm laborers.”

Local winemaker Stephens Dorcich, co-owner and operator of Jason-Stephens Winery on Watsonville Road, highlighted this attitude with an anecdotal example.

When headed out to the vineyard one day, Dorcich asked his wife, Gwen, if she’d like to help pick.

“She said, ‘bloody hell, are you crazy, man?'” chuckled Dorcich, who, when growing up, earned his spending money by picking prunes and cherries.

Nowadays, he observed, “kids say ‘forget it. It’s too hard.’ They don’t want to go out in the hot sun and make eight bucks an hour. They’d rather go do some easy job.”

A worker dumps a bucket of red bell peppers onto a conveyor belt Thursday to be sorted at a field owned by Fiorio Farms, off of Luchessa Avenue behind the Gilroy Sports Park. Photo by: Lora Schraft

A worker dumps a bucket of red bell peppers onto a conveyor belt Thursday to be sorted at a field owned by Fiorio Farms, off of Luchessa Avenue behind the Gilroy Sports Park. Photo by: Lora Schraft

Where as Dorcich was able to hire “plenty” of workers last year, he’s now employing half that amount – which means the 24 tons of grapes averaged daily during harvest for the last five years at Jason-Stephens shrank in 2011 to an average of 12 tons.

“There’s just not enough workers to go around,” he said. “At this rate, if we get any rain, I could lose $100,000 in one day.”

Third generation South County pepper grower Tom Obata agreed, “This is probably the worst year I’ve experienced in terms of getting labor.”

Obata can normally obtain from one labor contractor the 165 workers needed to harvest his 375 acres of bell peppers; this year, he had to go through three labor contractors.

By the end of this presidential term, Lofgren pointed out President Barrack Obama will have deported more illegal immigrants in four years than George Bush did in eight – causing the ripple effects for America’s farmers to spread like a plague of locusts.

For example: Each of the 1.6 million farm workers in labor-intensive agriculture in California and Arizona supports at least two to three year-round American jobs in processing, transportation, supplying inputs and marketing, according to the Western Growers Association.

“We need lots of hands,” said Aiello, a farmer of 32 years who usually hires about 500 pickers for harvest. “You could probably ask any local grower – we’re all experiencing this struggle.”

Faced with losing experienced workers who normally return each season, Lofgren and the WGA foresee growers adapting by scaling back, shifting to less labor-intensive crops or ceasing to farm in the U.S. altogether.

Dorcich predicts larger growers will start spending their money on getting mechanized.

Those are the long-term effects. A spike in production costs is already reality.

Fiorio and Aiello had to pay their workers 50 cents more than the $8 minimum wage this year, as farmers were forced to competitively negotiate for labor contractors’ business.

This resulted in a 30 percent increase in labor expenses per hour for Fiorio’s red bell pepper crops, followed by a 15 percent increase for his chili peppers – not counting what he had to pay in commission and payroll taxes. For banana peppers, Fiorio’s expenses equate to $1.75 a bucket, versus last year’s $1.25.

The irony is that Fiorio had to hire more laborers than usual because “the quality of work was really low.”

“You were at these people’s mercy,” he said. “Contract laborers knew there was other work. They’ve been holding out for more money because they have other places to go. They have more leverage on us.”

A sapling of hope called the AgJOBS Act, which would have provided agricultural employers with a stable, legal labor force while protecting farm workers from exploitative working conditions, was introduced in 2009 but “blocked by the Republicans,” Lofgren said. The provision was re-introduced in June inside the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011 (S. 1258), and is still in the first step of the legislative process.

“I wish I knew what to do,” said Lofgren. “But if (farmers) can’t get their crops picked, they’re not going to plant.”

It boils down to (1) finding a solution for maintaining a legal workforce, or (2) getting accustomed to buying commodities grown overseas, according to Jack King, manager of the National Affairs Office for the California Farm Bureau who said the options “become pretty straight, in that regard.”

During its peak picking season, King said California has 425,000 foreign-born laborers. To work in the fields, they are required to produce a social security card and Employment Eligibility Verification Form, called an I-9.

“We have this reliance,” said King. “But we feel we have no choice.”

Fiorio, Obata, Aiello and Dorcich all echoed this sentiment, asserting the need for a guest worker program.

“We can’t get American people to do these jobs. They won’t do it,” said Aiello. “They can stay home and draw unemployment, and they’re just not gonna do this type of work.”

Source: MorganHillTimes.com, “Growing pains: As California border patrol tightens, farmers feel the labor pinch” by Blair Tellers, 31 Oct 2011.

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