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With labor crisis: Food supply facing perfect storm

The “perfect storm” as a result of a decade of failed federal immigration/farm labor reform policy is brewing and about to make landfall in the fields where America gets its food supply.

According to a pair of ag labor experts speaking recently at the 25th annual Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno, Calif., it is shaping up to be a storm of Hurricane Katrina proportions as Congress has once again faltered in addressing an issue that has far reaching implications for not just agriculture, but the workforce of America as well.

Washington, D. C., labor attorney and former Fresnan Monte Lake said while the immigration reform issue has swirled around agriculture for a decade, America's construction and service industry face the same fate as agriculture unless meaningful immigration reform that includes a guest worker program is not soon enacted by Congress.

An estimated 90 percent of workers in all three industries are immigrants, most illegal and from Mexico, and as many as 90 percent of them are using forged documents to work in the United States.

Lake said immigration reform for the past decade has focused almost exclusively on enforcement and has failed to adequately address the need for an effective guest worker program and what to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants already in America.

The “best” the federal has come up with to this point is to approve the building of a 700-mile fence to keep illegal immigrants from crossing a 2,000-mile border. California State University economics professor Bert Mason, an expert in immigration policy and farm labor, called the wall a “sorry state of federal policy that is the only thing elected officials can come up with” to address one of the major issues in American society today.

What is ironic about the wall, compared to the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China, is that if and when it is ever built, it may be even more worthless than it is now being characterized.

Mason warned that the labor supply from Mexico may soon disappear with a dramatically declining birth rate in Mexico and an improving economy that entices workers to remain in Mexico rather than try to cross a border that has turned into a war zone.

Today the American-Mexico wage ratio is $8 to $1, but the Mexican economy is improving and the discrepancy is narrowing. Mason does not believe it must be balanced to reduce illegal immigration to keep Mexicans from crossing the U.S. border looking for work.

“There is no second generation of farm workers,” said Mason, explaining that children of illegal immigrants born in the United States are not becoming farm workers. And neither are the children who cross the border with their farm worker parents.

“I do not know which country will supply the next generation of farm workers,” but it will not be Mexico, Mason said.

And California needs farm workers, even in this era of rapidly advancing agricultural technology. The demand for farm workers has not dwindled in the past 25 years. Reports of labor shortages have been widespread this year in California, down 45 percent or higher. Crops went unharvested due to labor shortages.

Mason said California still needs about 400,000 farm workers each season. This represents about a third of the U.S. farm worker work force.

Technology and a shift away from row crops to higher value, more labor intensive crops has changed where workers are needed. They are no longer needed to hoe cotton where Roundup Ready cotton technology has replaced hoe crews with herbicides. The same is becoming true in the raisin industry where labor demands are among the highest of any California crop.

Mason says 40 percent of the raisin crop is now harvested with at least some mechanization. However, there are other, newer crops requiring more labor.

Some of these “hot crops” are raspberries, blueberries and pomegranates. Tree fruit and table grape crops still needs harvest labor.

All vegetable crops are hand harvested. It takes 30,000 labors to harvest strawberries and spinach alone.

Increasing year-round demand for fresh fruits and vegetables is also putting more demand on labor. Growing consumer demand for organic crops will also tax the ag labor force because there is more hand labor involved in producing organic crops than conventionally-grown crops.

California agriculture has been detailing its plight to the federal government and Congress for a decade. However, it has largely fallen on deaf ears, said Lake.

Congress has spent billions bolstering border security and “it has not worked,” said Lake. “Enforcement alone will not solve the problem.” A workable guest worker program is needed. The current H2A guest worker program is too cumbersome to meet the needs of perishable crop producers, said Lake.

The House and Senate both passed immigration reform legislation this year. The House version focused entirely on enforcement. The Senate bill included enforcement, but it also addressed the worker issue.

The bills went to conference committee before the general election. Lake was not optimistic meaningful reform would come with a lame duck Congress after the election.

“We have been talking about this for a decade. It is not something that has impacted California alone. It is truly a national crisis,” Lake said. The only question is will the perfect storm be a Katrina or will Congress step in and do something to solve the problem. “There are labor shortages from New York to California.”

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