As if a possible fourth year of drought and strike-blocked ports were not enough, a dangerous lack of farm workers threatens the health of farming in California in the months ahead.
Although some harvesting takes place every month, the late spring and summer months require the most hand harvest labor to pick and pack an enormous crop of tree fruit, grapes, strawberries, and an assortment of vegetables and salad greens.
The prominence of laborers from Mexico to carry most of the hand-harvesting load has been well understood and practiced for years. The citizenship status or lack of it for this work force of more than half a million and its counterparts in other states and other industries has become an issue of major national concern.
The political disagreement about control of the border with Mexico and the lingering question of amnesty or other policies affecting those who have crossed the border to live and work in America perpetuate an aura of uncertainty for workers in Mexico who might want to enter California to work on its farms.
The environment for farm workers in California is being further complicated by the recent proposal that their citizenship status be confirmed by the federal electronic system called E-Verify. Employer groups say the checking and cross checking it requires will slow approvals of workers to an impractical pace.
Even though California’s dairy industry does no mass or peak hiring of farm workers, it has recognized the danger of employers having to rely on the E-Verify system.
Western United Dairymen
Western United Dairymen located in Modesto has called on a Congressional subcommittee through its membership in Agricultural Cooperatives Together to countermand the apparent move in Washington to authorize the check-up system for all farm workers.
It asked that E-Verify not be implemented for farm workers without addressing the larger full immigration issue.
Momentum for applying the verification system exists since it has been part of the federal H-2A program that recruits and assigns temporary foreign workers to work locations specified by employers, not all of them in agriculture.
Very little use has been made of the H-2A program in California agriculture, mostly since requests for workers must be filed far ahead of the time they are needed. Other regulations and requirements of the federal program make it less flexible and less responsive than many growers want.
Federal government indecision
Perhaps the inflexibility of the H2-A program is just an outward appearance of the federal government’s and Congress’s indecision and lack of resolve in regard to the entire issue of immigration reform.
Among those who must be puzzled by the fence straddling and inaction are farm workers.
One of the most direct attempts at solutions and protection of the pool of farm workers in California is coming from farm labor contractors. Some have intensified that recruitment effort in Mexico.
The business and reliability frameworks of several contractor business entities have strengthened and expanded. The contractors stand as one of the strongest hopes for maintaining a reliable corps of talented, hard working farm employees in the state.
Of course, relationships between workers and their farmer-employers are much stronger than outsiders realize and they always have been. The desire to continue working for employers who have been faithful and generous keeps thousands of workers coming back after winter lay-offs and down time.
The supply of farm workers may be dwindling, and some sectors of California agriculture may experience shortages during this long harvest season. But the traditional economic and social forces that have upheld America’s employer-employee structure are solidly in place.
In California, farm jobs are a big part of the economy, a big part of food production, a big part of the state’s life. This year, filling them may be a big challenge.