By GOSIA WOZNIACKA 09/26/13 02:10 PM ET EDT AP
FRESNO, Calif. -- With the harvest in full swing on the West Coast, farmers in California and other states say they can't find enough people to pick high value crops such as grapes, peppers, apples and pears.
In some cases, workers have walked off fields in the middle of harvest, lured by offers of better pay or easier work elsewhere.
The shortage and competition for workers means labor expenses have climbed, harvests are getting delayed and less fruit and vegetable products are being picked, prompting some growers to say their income is suffering. Experts say, however, the shortage is not expected to affect prices for consumers.
Wow, that's different. Usually, we are prodded to worry that a head of iceberg lettuce will soon cost $5 unless we have massively more guest workers.
But farmworkers, whose incomes are some of the lowest in the nation, have benefited, their wages jumping in California to $2 to $3 over the $8 hourly minimum wage and even more for those working piece rate.
The shortage – driven by a struggling U.S. economy, more jobs in Mexico, and bigger hurdles to illegal border crossings – has led some farmers to offer unusual incentives: they're buying meals for their workers, paying for transportation to and from fields, even giving bonuses to those who stay for the whole season.
And a few have stationed foremen near their crews to prevent other farmers from wooing away their workers.
"In the past, we were overrun with farmworkers. But not anymore," said labor contractor Jesus Mateo, whose crews saw a 20 percent pay increase. "Employers have to do something to attract them. The fastest workers can now earn more than $1,000 per week."...
In some cases, farmers are being paid below market prices, because their produce is past its prime, having stayed on the branch or vine for too long. Hardest hit are small farmers, who can't afford to pay more for labor, Pegg said.
This is where most CRitF articles, using Clean Your Plate, There Are Starving Children in China-style logic, imply that starvation or damnation or something threatens if there isn't a stoop laborer standing by to pluck every single bit of produce at its moment of peak ripeness. In reality, the tremendous variability of harvests (due to weather, etc.) means that any economically rational system will leave some fraction of some crops in the fields.
Farmers say immigration reform, which would legalize their current workforce and create a guest worker program to legally bring farmworkers from other countries, could solve the labor shortage problem. Immigration reform, however, has stalled in Congress.
Farmers in other states are also facing shortages. In Washington, apple growers are having a hard time finding enough workers in time for peak harvest in October. And in Oregon, pear growers – whose crop is very big this year – are facing the same problem.
"They are really struggling to get that crop off the trees," said Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. "These growers have decades of investment into plant stock, they can't just transition overnight to be less labor-intensive."
For years, farmers throughout the U.S. had access to an abundant, cheap, mostly unauthorized labor force streaming in from Mexico. Workers say they often had to beg growers for even a few hours of work and their wages were low.
As the U.S. plunged into a recession and Mexico's economy improved, some seasonal migrant workers chose to remain home.
Increased border security and drug cartel violence made crossings more dangerous and expensive, deterring workers. A sharp drop in Mexico's fertility rate further decreased the number of young men crossing into the U.S. to work in the fields.
The trend appears long-lasting, spelling trouble for farmers, according to a new report by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center. While the recession is over, the report finds, mass migration from Mexico has not resumed.
Or, Pew reported the total number of illegal immigrants was back up in 2012.
But, whatever. This is, overall, a much better article than almost all I've read in this genre. A few years back, some of the multitudinous journalistic Carneys, John Carney and Timothy P. Carney, took up scoffing at the numerous articles that were just rewrites of Growers Associations talking point memos. Perhaps they are having an influence. So, say not the struggle naught availeth.
"This year, it has become even more challenging to find agricultural employees, and it's going to get worse in the next few years," said Noe Cisneros Jr. of Freedom AG, a Kern County labor contractor who manages a crew of up to 300 workers.
On a recent September morning in an endless stretch of San Joaquin Valley vineyards, workers lifted paper trays filled with raisins and heaped them onto a trailer – the final step in an exceptionally profitable raisin harvest for the workers.
This might be the first time in one of these CRitF articles that I've ever seen reference to how much the growers are making.
Still, while this article is much less biased in favor of growers than most, mere neutrality isn't going to undo decades of propaganda. Why not some self-criticism by the press about how they ignored the basics of economics to promote more profits for a special interests in the name of diversity and more immigration?
And why not some self-criticism among economists? As usual the obscure economists who are specialists in an area, such as UC Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin, make sense. Unfortunately, the big name economists shamefully ignore criticizing a whole genre of economically illiterate articles.
With farmworkers in such high demand, many said they shun remote locations and choose fields closer to home; they pick crops that pay better; they also prefer lighter work instead of tougher jobs that require being bent over all day. More women are also in the fields.
Because most workers now have smartphones, they text each other information about pay and working conditions – and some switch employers mid-way through harvest if better opportunities arise.
As a result, labor contractors and growers must work harder to fill and retain work crews. Cisneros said he even trained and hired high school students this summer to pick grapes – something he was not willing to do in the past.
If you are new to all this, I outlined the basics of Cropsrottinginthefieldsonomics here in 2006.