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Farm Labor Shortages Plague Pajaro Valley Growers

The national problem is manifesting in the local agriculture industry.

A new drought impacting Pajaro Valley fields has nothing to do with weather patterns.

Farm labor shortages this summer have forced those working in agriculture—a $565 million industry in Santa Cruz County—to clock overtime shifts and seven-day-a-week schedules and, in the most-dire situations, abandon crops and plow-in fields.

“The labor has been very tight,” said Tom Am Rhein, of Naturipe, a Watsonville strawberry grower. “There’s been some degree of crop loss as a result.”

There are no firm figures detailing the size of the worker shortfall. Some farmers in the Pajaro Valley said their labor crews are 10 to 20 percent off previous years. Most blame it on tighter immigration policies that caused fewer migrant workers to come across the border from Mexico.

Dick Peixoto of in Watsonville—who farms everything from arugula to watermelon radishes—called it a "major shortage."

"It’s the worst labor problem I've seen in 30 years," Peixoto said. "It’s definitely not getting better."

It’s a phenomenon apparent across the U.S. agriculture industry.

The problem is pronounced in California, where farmers are reporting labor shortages as high as 50 percent, according to Rayne Pagg, manager of Federal Policy Division at the California Farm Bureau Federation. The coalition released a survey to its members this month asking for data on their labor issues.

During the first week of the survey, 80 percent of farmers who responded said they have not been able to hire enough people this year to pick crops. Those include berries, tree fruit and wine grapes, according to Ag Alert, a weekly newspaper published by the Farm Bureau Federation.

"They’re definitely seeing shortages and they’re getting more and more concerned," Pagg said.

The problem is obvious in the Pajaro Valley. Here, "¿Buscas Trabajo?" signs— which translates to, "Looking for work?"—are posted at intersections. The signs feature a toll-free number and the name of a nearby ranch.

No one is calling for work, growers said.

“We’re barely making it, and that’s because I have to push a little bit of overtime,” said strawberry grower Edward Ortega, who farms four ranches in Watsonville, Pajaro and Moss Landing.

Workers Are Scarce

Though many people in the Pajaro Valley are out of work, Ortega said he hasn’t had any domestic job hunters come looking for a job. The unemployment rate in Watsonville, an area hard-hit by the housing crisis, hovers around 20 percent.

“Even though unemployment’s sky-high they’re pretty selective about what they want to do," Peixoto said.

Tougher immigration laws compound the problem. The majority of field workers in California come from Mexico. Tight immigration policies have made it riskier and more expensive for those who don't live in the U.S. year-round to cross the border, according to growers.

"We don’t have a legal way for people to come across to work so trying to come across other means is very costly, difficult and discourages people," said Ortega, who has a significant Oaxacan population in his workforce.

An improved economy in Mexico has kept people from making the trip north, growers said. Immigration raids also may have frightened migratory laborers, according to Pagg.

"It’s been getting progressively worse," Pagg said. "We’re assuming people aren’t moving as much just for fear of getting deported or just laying down roots in communities."

Some have called the farm labor crisis "phony" and accuse growers of crying wolf every summer.

But in Watsonville, farmers said they're on the verge of a crisis and have resorted to stop-gap measures to get as much as they can out of high-dollar crops, like and raspberries.

That has meant bringing in contract labor crews when they are available and trying to attract seasonal workers from other areas to Watsonville, where the agriculture jobs are more consistent.

As a last resort, growers are shifting crews from low-producing to higher productivity fields and cutting their losses.

“It’s pretty substantial, to the point where almost every day I would say we have to decide if we can harvest all of the crops," Peixoto said. “That’s party of the management of crops right now, deciding what will be the sacrificial lamb.”

The well-being of employees becomes an issue during a labor shortage.

“Beyond 8 hours a day, you just start to wear out," said Am Rhein, who is paying a lot of overtime and has some crews working seven days a week. " … It doesn’t matter what you pay somebody; they’ve got to rest.”

Other farm tasks slide when the labor supply is depleted. For example, Am Rhein said weeding can take a backseat to harvesting, creating a larger issue when the plants go to seed and a new round of weeds roots in.

Planting next year's berry fields also will be a challenge. There is some concern that the Northern California nurseries that supply strawberry starts to the Pajaro Valley will be understaffed. Also, local farm crews will have to take a break from harvesting to plant the new fields at the optimum time.

A Single Solution

When asked what could solve the problem, the unanimous answer from growers and farm advocates was a guest worker program.

Seventy-eight percent of U.S. farm workers are foreign-born, with 75 percent of them coming from Mexico, according to the 2009 National Agricultural Workers Survey. About half of crop workers are unauthorized, according to the same survey.

"There’s just nothing being done in the management of our immigration policy," Am Rhein said. "It’s just a complete train wreck."

Growers are already worried about next summer.

"I think we're seeing the tip of the iceberg," said Jess Brown, director of the . "... What does this mean for next year? That's the scary part."

Woud you pick strawberries if you were unemployed?

Lucas September 17, 2012 at 04:28 AM
MM1 - If you laughed at that you'll love this... http://www.resist.com/other/border_patrol.swf
MM1 September 17, 2012 at 07:20 PM
And there you have it folks - racist bigotry at its finest. Your family must be proud. What happened, "Lucas?" Did the truth hurt? …did it? Sure seems like it. Or maybe you just ran out of “credible” sources like “orangepower.com” to reference? Actually, that link is quite amusing; I couldn’t help but smile when I saw it... You see, while “WE” continue to work and further to lives here, people like YOU will continue to waste your time and go to great lengths to create trivial things like that. And to what end? While I’m sure that, the game provides you with a full day’s worth of entertainment (much like a ball of yarn does for a cat), there are those of us whose time requires more productivity. Not to worry, I will check back periodically should you suddenly come up with something that’s of substance to post and worthwhile to respond to. In any case, your argument - up until now - has lost its merit. Congratulations :)
Lucas September 18, 2012 at 07:07 AM
If you read the entire thread I think you will discover that you are your only cheerleader. It can't be you, everyone else must be wrong. I'll be moving on and joining the rest of the people that are wrong. By all means, check back periodically and keep posting if it helps with your self esteem problems.
Ronald Lazar September 23, 2012 at 01:42 AM
Have you all heard about the Tempoaray Agricultutal Worker Visa? The H-2a. Also, the proposed H-2c would make it even better. The H-2a is the fulfillment of Caeser Chavez' dream for fair pay, housing, keep families together, and an unlimited number available. I would like to contribute to the discussion this is a fact that transforms - in one day - an "illegal immigrant" temporary agricultural seasonal worker - into a "documented worker" who receives housing, medical, legal visas for family, too. The fact is that we actually have an amazingly efficient guest worker program, and streamlined by email for farmers when seeking H-2a work visas. The problem is that farmers prefer to exploit illegal workers. Bigger profits, that the reason. The H-2a visa is a work visa. It is good for 364 days, is renewable, it is good. Many farmers use it. I have copious information about prosperous farmers from Montana to Georgia and North Carolina who have all the legal, documented workers they need. The also follow the law. I would like everybody to start asking the farmers this one question, "why won't you use the H-2a visa?"
Jennifer Squires September 25, 2012 at 04:11 PM
This blogger says we shouldn't have a farm labor shortage at all. http://watsonville.patch.com/blog_posts/we-already-have-a-farm-labor-guest-worker-programa-beautiful-h-2a-visa

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