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

Sierra Garcia
Sep 11 2019

As field hands rethink traveling to the U.S., some farmers have been forced to watch their produce rot in the fields. Many others are cutting back acreage.

Strawberries under cultivation in a California berry farm.

A Growing Problem Strawberries under cultivation in a California berry farm. DRISCOLL’S
 

By Sierra Garcia

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.  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.

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
 

 

Each year since 2005, more people are crossing the border going into Mexico than coming to the U.S. At the same time, Mexico’s population structure has transformed.

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.  Sierra Garcia
 

When one woman was asked what proportion of the waiting seniors had worked in agriculture, she replied, “All of us.”

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.  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 DecliningBill 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
 

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.

“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.   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.”

 

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Edited by Felicity Barringer and Geoff McGhee.

 

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The Disappearance of Aleutian Island Otters Frays Alaskan Waters’ Food Web. Over the past 40 years, more than 90 percent of sea otters have vanished from the Aleutians’ delicate seascape. There, otters are more protector than predator, holding the entire ecosystem together by feasting on destructive sea urchins at a rate of up to 1,000 a day. Fewer otters, more urchins. Climate change makes things worse, as reported by a paper in the journal Science. Populations of sea urchins have boomed, carpeting the sea floor in spiny spheres that mow down entire forests of kelp. Now the living, red-algae reefs on which the swirling stands of kelp once stood are in peril. Softened by warming and acidifying waters, the coral-like structures have quickly succumbed to the urchins’ tiny teeth. The New York Times

Many Joshua Trees Were Doomed When Lightning Strikes hit the Mojave National Preserve. On August 15, the first day of California’s lightning siege, thunderstorms rolled across the Mojave National Preserve. The Cima Dome wildfire turned the preserve into a Joshua tree graveyard. Most of the charred trees remain standing, tangible, eerily beautiful ghosts in place of living trees with their crooked beauty. The ghosts will wither and the 43,273 acres of the Dome fire will be despoiled. Los Angeles Times

Getting California Grapes Off the Vine Before Fire and Smoke Ruin Them means depending on vineyard workers who are largely undocumented, and in terms of COVID-19 risk, poorly protected. The wildfires, which have so far collectively burned more than 1.6 million acres in Northern California, sparked right at the beginning of Sonoma County’s grape harvest. And they’re adding to the hazards already faced by some of the country’s poorest and least visible laborers. Gabriel Machabanski, associate director of a workers’ rights organization in Sonoma County, said “Since March, there has been so little work for low-wage workers such as day laborers and seasonal farmworkers; the current situation lends itself, more so than usual, to exploitation by employers.” A photo essay: nighttime harvesting near fires. Civil Eats

One of the Worst COVID-19 Hotspots Is Now an Epicenter of Effective Contact Tracing. After infections are identified, a team of 35 people fans out after to rapidly test people, isolate the infected and visit the homes of any who may have been exposed. Both the White Mountain Apache and nearby Navajo Nation experienced some of the country’s worst infection rates, yet both began to turn things around, in part with robust contact tracing. “We’re seen a significant decline in cases on the reservation at the same time that things were on fire for the rest of the state,” said one local epidemiologist. High Country News

Feral Pigs Change Ecosystems and Human Lives, from Texas to Montana to Saskatchewan. There are as many as 9 million feral swine across the U.S.; populations have expanded from about 17 states to 38 over the last three decades. Texas has about 1.5 million and spends upwards of $4 million annually controlling them, with little hope of eradication. Florida, Georgia, and California also have vast populations. “Pig populations are completely out of control,” said one expert. “The efforts to deal with them are about one percent of what’s currently needed.” The province of Saskatchewan may soon have more wild pigs than people. Montana’s new education campaign, “Squeal on Pigs,” is designed to push residents to report sightings to 24-hour hotline, alerting specialists in pig elimination. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: August 31, 2020

Upending Plans to Mine Precious Metals Near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Army Corps of Engineers Throws a New Hurdle. The Corps, which a month ago said the Pebble Mine would pose no environmental risk, now says it would mean trouble for the sockeye salmon that thrive in the area. After opposition from presidential son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who have both been fishing in Bristol Bay, the Corps threw a new hurdle that could thwart federal permitting, finding that “discharge at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources.” Also, a scientist studying the robustness of the sockeye population reports that an unusual, ancestral breed of salmon would be at risk from the mine. E&E News Hakai Magazine

The Redwoods in California’s Oldest State Park Withstood a Wildfire that tore through the area. Reporters found that fears were unrealized that many of the trees, some up to 2,000 years old, had been destroyed. And a relieved scientist pointed out that redwood forests evolved to withstand fire. Associated Press

Colorado’s Governor Is Focused on Promoting San Luis Valley Farmers’ New Approach to dealing with the increasing aridity of an area that is the epicenter of the state’s drought. Quinoa and hemp replace barley and tomatoes, and farmers form local districts to control groundwater use. Denver Post

California Sues to Block New Federal Rules Allowing Farmers Access to So Much Water from the state’s largest river systems that extinction for the delta smelt and two different salmon species could be inevitable. Two huge networks of dams and canals — whose construction led directly to the dwindling of fish populations — control water distribution to farms that supply one-third of the country’s vegetables and half of its nuts and fruit; scientists have been pressured to speed up their evaluations of the threat. KQED

Three Texas Cities Are Models of Efficient and Innovative Water Use. Austin adopted a 100-year water plan in 2018 calling for such advanced conservation and recycling programs that the city anticipates supplying a healthy share of its future water demand by reengineering its water system as a water collection and recycling loop. El Paso cut its per-capita water consumption from 205 gallons daily 30 years ago to 129 gallons today. Some of its conservation practices: subsidizing the replacement of water-wasting bathroom fixtures and regulating lawn watering. San Antonio subsidizes the distribution of digital water-flow sensors and encourages the use of native plants to replace the thirstier show species in local gardens. Circle of Blue

“Keep Immigrant Bees Out.” Environmentalists Want Honey Bees Barred from public lands in Utah. Beekeepers’ honey-bee hives sometimes travel to pollinate crops elsewhere — particularly California’s almond crop — before returning to Utah’s national forests to forage in areas free of pesticides. But honeybees are non-native. Environmentalists are petitioning to ban them from these areas, saying they may spread disease and put unnecessary pressure on native bees. Salt Lake Tribune

Shifting the Balance of Power Between Preserving Birds and Developing Energy. A 1.5-million-acre oil-and-gas development proposed in Wyoming is in the middle of a superhighway for migrating birds, and a court’s insistence on retaining federal penalties for accidental bird deaths from power lines and wind turbines. A potential go-ahead from the Interior Department could be coming soon on the project after six years of federal environmental reviews. The decision, which quoted the Harper Lee novel, saying “it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird,” could dictate how companies operate in Wyoming for the next decade and what happens when they kill birds. E&E Daily

A Trout With Feathers: Looking At the West’s Only Aquatic Songbird. A photo essay on dippers, small gray birds that bob up and down on rocks, dive into streams, and resurface with insects in their beaks. Audubon Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: August 17, 2020

Final Approval to Drill Arctic Wildlife Refuge clears the way for an auction for oil and gas drilling rights on the 1/6 million-acre plain. Four decades of fights over the refuge have paralleled four decades of science showing the burning of fossil fuels is heating the air and the oceans and changing the climate. These changes may make it difficult to sustain the infrastructure needed for drilling. Elsewhere in Alaska, ConocoPhillips is using “chillers” to keep the warming climate from thawing the tundra under its Willow oil drilling platform on the North Slope. Washington Post Bloomberg News

California Heat Sets Records, Creates Rolling Blackouts As Fires Spawn Firenados. The combination of intense heat, dry vegetation and lightning storms has the state struggling on several fronts. The unusual and extreme phenomenon of a fire-generated tornado occurred on August 15 in the Lake Tahoe area as a new fire quickly spun out of control. A few days earlier, the Lake Fire outside Los Angeles spawned its own firenado. Rolling blackouts hit the state while in Death Valley, the temperature hit a record 130 degrees. Los Angeles Times National Public Radio Desert Sun

Arizona’s Drought Intensified as Seasonal Monsoons Again Turn Into “Nonsoons.” With temperatures in Phoenix exceeding 110 degrees for days on end and the three-month period ending in June was the second hottest and third driest in 125 years. Populous Maricopa County, including Phoenix and Scottsdale, is in a severe drought. The impact on the water levels at Lake Mead, which is now at 40 percent of capacity, will mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will receive less water from the Colorado River. Arizona Water News Arizona Republic

Some Oregon Forest Land Would Be Lost as Spotted Owl Habitat if a federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposal becomes final. The proposal would take 204,653 acres, or 2 percent of the total of 9.6 Million Acres, from the area of ancient forests designated as critical habitat and set aside as habitat for the endangered owl. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With Ice Disappearing, Pacific Walruses Are Moving Sooner and Sooner to Beaches of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. They just gathered at Point Lay at the end of July, earlier than ever before. The walruses had evolved to use floating ice as platforms for foraging and rearing their young. But for the past 13 years, after the first year of a record-low extent of sea ice, they have been moving to the Point Lay site by the tens of thousands every summer. Arctic Today

A Colorado Lab Works to Prepare the National Electric Grid for a Renewable Future. A scientist used this metaphor to describe the challenge of retrofitting the three power grids to let them handle the upcoming changes: It's like updating a reliable 1957 Chevrolet for the complex technologies and climate-related hazards of the 21st century. What was recently unveiled at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado is a proving ground for the high-tech creations and will test the impacts of battery- and hydrogen-powered energy storage systems and large increases of renewable energy. Scientific American

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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