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Survey highlights negative trend in worker availability

Issues compound California's farm labor problem.

Lee Allen

May 7, 2019

6 Min Read
Sweet corn harvest
Sweet corn is harvested in California. The state's agriculture faces continuing worker shortages, according to a recent survey.Calif. Farm Bureau Federation

The 100-year-old California Farm Bureau Federation provides support for 2.5 million jobs that represent $56 billion in crop value and has been doing so for lots of years, aiming to improve the well-being and quality of life for the state's farmers and ranchers.

They’ve had their hands full in that mission, even more so of late. This was evident in their recently-released 2019 survey of over a thousand members of the farm and ranch industry, a broad spectrum across most all counties and commodities, that showed a continuing problem in employee shortages. 

While the labor shortage isn't new, the latest figures indicate the problem is getting worse and to-date efforts to solve it have generally been ineffective.

“Despite raising wages, increasing benefits, changing farming and cropping patterns, using the existing H-2A program, and automation where appropriate, more than half (56 percent) the respondents have been unable to hire the employees they’ve needed --- with increasing difficulties noted in hiring patterns in 2017 and 2018,” according to CFBF President Jamie Johansson.

This year's survey findings continued a negative trend in employee availability, resulting in more current challenges with the increasing likelihood of even tougher business decisions that will need to be made in the very near future.

Related:CFBF: Farms face continuing worker shortages

Alarming statistics

Among the more alarming statistics, 86 percent of responding farmers raised wages with little response while 61 percent hired a farm labor contractor to recruit new employees, again with little success.

The employee shortages forced over half (56 percent) of the reportees to come up with financing to add labor-saving technology, such as mechanical planters or harvesters.  In some cases (37 percent), cultivation practices like pruning and weeding were adjusted, while 31 percent said they were forced to switch acreage.  Fifty seven percent of those who changed crops switched to non-labor-intensive items such as tree nuts or field and row crops like corn or cotton.

Six percent said they had enrolled in the H-2A agricultural visa program that proved less than effective in resolving the labor shortage.  “The missing element here,” says Johansson, “is an improved agricultural immigration system that will match willing workers looking for employment with farmers in need of those hires.”

Individual farmers felt the same way: “The country desperately needs a comprehensive immigration policy where workers are able to work, and return home, legally,” said one.  “There is a climate of fear and uncertainty in the immigrant community as well as a lack of reform,” added another.

Frustrated farmer comments ranged from examples of having to abandon row crops and berry fields of good quality because workers were unavailable during critical harvest times to a need to walk away from half an 80-acre strawberry field and an 80% reduction in tomato crop to be replaced by lighter labor crops like winter squash.  “In our case, we needed 125 workers, but were able to retain only 40,” said one farmer.

'H-2A visas aren't practical'

Only a few relied on use of H-2A visa laborers to solve their dilemmas.  Said one: “H-2A visas aren’t practical for small growers (because) their rules are unrealistic.  We really need immigration reform that will be practical for all growers.”

The always-outspoken Western Growers Association President/CEO, Tom Nassif, testifying in Washington earlier this year, said: “Record deportations and anti-immigrant rhetoric have doubled the labor shortage and while Washington presents the H-2A visa as an answer to a lack of immigration reform, that process is lengthy and cumbersome and the H-2A program just hasn’t worked.”

Noting that worker shortages in labor-intensive crop management have only been increased by immigration enforcement and a clamp-down on border security, he added: “The current flawed agricultural guest worker program is filled with red tape and needs resolution” to prevent crop production from shifting to foreign countries.

In its survey conclusions, CFBF noted that California farmers hire nearly 473,000 employees during peak seasons and very few are U.S. born.  Pew Research Center reported that 9 in 10 farm workers in California were foreign born.  Experts calculate that as many as 50-70 percent of the hired workers are not authorized to work in the U.S., and CalAgJobs reported four positions open for every applicant.

“Although we are encouraged by interest from the 116th Congress to address the issue in a bipartisan manner, studies indicate the availability of farm employees will continue to decline and trends outlined in the CFBF report will likely continue with farmers being forced to change production decisions,” the report's conclusion notes.

Retirement-age workers

Add to the most recent stats another fact that can’t be ignored --- the agricultural labor force, per se, on both sides of the border, is reaching traditional retirement years and aging out of work.

Taken en toto, the negatives already add to near catastrophe, much of which is reflected in the newly-released The Farm Labor Problem: A Global Perspective, co-authored by urban economist J. Edward Taylor at University of California-Davis, that explores the character of agricultural labor markets and the implications for food production.

Taylor’s take on the Farm Bureau survey?  “The flow of abundant labor from Mexico is coming to an end and it will be politically and logistically difficult for farmers to find plentiful, low-wage labor from other regions.  Putting the brakes on this downward spiral won’t be easy.  Farmers may be able to buy some time by making use of the H-2A program, expanding the guest-worker program as a stopgap measure, but Mexican farm workers are aging out too and fewer young workers are interested in migrating in.  Even an efficient immigration policy can’t solve the problem if workers don’t want to work in agriculture. The only long-run solution will be finding an efficient and cost-effective way to grow more food with fewer workers.”

In an exclusive post-survey follow-up for Western Farm Press, CFBF President Johansson alluded to the fact that all elements were approaching critical mass: “Labor is the top farm issue right now.  It’s a scary proposition and the numbers we’re seeing advocate for change…now.  It needs to go straight to Washington for a bi-partisan solution.  Unfortunately, so many there --- on both sides of the aisle --- see this as a good campaign issue to stir up fear.  But what gets lost in all the politics is the fact that it’s the people on the farm that are the ones being hurt.  We need to be talking in very frank terms about some really scary circumstances.

Switching acreage

“Farm owners are switching acreage to less intense hand-labor crops and when you talk about a state the size of California, one of the largest agricultural economies in the world where half the fresh fruits and vegetables in the U.S. are produced, a major shift of crop production could really have an impact on the worldwide food supply.

“Our 2017 survey showed the beginning trend with 9% of farmers having reduced their harvest, walking away from crops in the field because they didn’t have sufficient labor to accomplish the tasks.  That number in 2019 has nearly doubled to 14%, and that’s unsustainable.  All of us involved in agriculture --- producers and consumers alike --- are at risk.”

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