A new drought impacting fields in both San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties has nothing to do with weather patterns.
Farm labor shortages this summer have forced those working in agriculture—a $565 million industry in Santa Cruz County and according to the 2011 Agricultural Crop Report, total agricultural production in San Mateo County topped $137 million for the year—to clock overtime shifts and seven-day-a-week schedules and, in the most-dire situations, abandon crops and plow-in fields.
“The labor has been very tight,” said Tom Am Rhein, of Naturipe, a Watsonville strawberry grower. “There’s been some degree of crop loss as a result.”
There are no firm figures detailing the size of the worker shortfall. Some farmers in the Pajaro Valley in Santa Cruz County said their labor crews are 10 to 20 percent off previous years. Most blame it on tighter immigration policies that caused fewer migrant workers to come across the border from Mexico.
San Mateo County Farm Bureau executive director Bill Gass, based in Half Moon Bay, says other reasons for the shortage include workers getting older and retiring.
"The next generation is not following in their footsteops," he said. "Plus many of the potential workers from Mexico are afraid to cross the border because of drug cartel activity near the borders. Also a lot of the workers are now going into construction, food service or hotels so there’s more competition in finding farm labor."
Although San Mateo County is a service dominated economy with less than 1 percent of workers employed in agricultural jobs, agriculture remains an important force in the county, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Still, there's a lack of field workers, and Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organics in Watsonville—who farms everything from arugula to watermelon radishes—calls it a "major shortage."
"It’s the worst labor problem I've seen in 30 years," Peixoto said. "It’s definitely not getting better."
It’s a phenomenon apparent across the U.S. agriculture industry.
The problem is pronounced in California, where farmers are reporting labor shortages as high as 50 percent, according to Rayne Pagg, manager of Federal Policy Division at the California Farm Bureau Federation. The coalition released a survey to its members this month asking for data on their labor issues.
During the first week of the survey, 80 percent of farmers who responded said they have not been able to hire enough people this year to pick crops. Those include berries, tree fruit and wine grapes, according to Ag Alert, a weekly newspaper published by the Farm Bureau Federation.
"They’re definitely seeing shortages and they’re getting more and more concerned," Pagg said.
Growers in San Mateo County are also having difficulties finding seasonal workers this year, said Gass. "If a farmer can’t get the help he needs, their crops will just end up rotting in the fields," he said.
The problem is also obvious in the Pajaro Valley. Here, "¿Buscas Trabajo?" signs— which translates to, "Looking for work?"—are posted at intersections. The signs feature a toll-free number and the name of a nearby ranch.
No one is calling for work, growers said.
“We’re barely making it, and that’s because I have to push a little bit of overtime,” said strawberry grower Edward Ortega, who farms four ranches in Watsonville, Pajaro and Moss Landing.
Workers Are Scarce
Though many people in the Pajaro Valley are out of work, Ortega said he hasn’t had any domestic job hunters come looking for a job. The unemployment rate in Watsonville, an area hard-hit by the housing crisis, hovers around 20 percent.
“Even though unemployment’s sky-high they’re pretty selective about what they want to do," Peixoto said.
Tougher immigration laws compound the problem. The majority of field workers in California come from Mexico. Tight immigration policies have made it riskier and more expensive for those who don't live in the U.S. year-round to cross the border, according to growers.
"We don’t have a legal way for people to come across to work so trying to come across other means is very costly, difficult and discourages people," said Ortega, who has a significant Oaxacan population in his workforce.
An improved economy in Mexico has kept people from making the trip north, growers said. Immigration raids also may have frightened migratory laborers, according to Pagg.
"It’s been getting progressively worse," Pagg said. "We’re assuming people aren’t moving as much just for fear of getting deported or just laying down roots in communities."
Some have called the farm labor crisis "phony" and accuse growers of crying wolf every summer.
But in Watsonville, farmers said they're on the verge of a crisis and have resorted to stop-gap measures to get as much as they can out of high-dollar crops, like strawberries and raspberries.
That has meant bringing in contract labor crews when they are available and trying to attract seasonal workers from other areas to Watsonville, where the agriculture jobs are more consistent.
As a last resort, growers are shifting crews from low-producing to higher productivity fields and cutting their losses.
“It’s pretty substantial, to the point where almost every day I would say we have to decide if we can harvest all of the crops," Peixoto said. “That’s party of the management of crops right now, deciding what will be the sacrificial lamb.”
The well-being of employees becomes an issue during a labor shortage.
“Beyond 8 hours a day, you just start to wear out," said Am Rhein, who is paying a lot of overtime and has some crews working seven days a week. " … It doesn’t matter what you pay somebody; they’ve got to rest.”
Other farm tasks slide when the labor supply is depleted. For example, Am Rhein said weeding can take a backseat to harvesting, creating a larger issue when the plants go to seed and a new round of weeds roots in.
Planting next year's berry fields also will be a challenge. There is some concern that the Northern California nurseries that supply strawberry starts to the Pajaro Valley will be understaffed. Also, local farm crews will have to take a break from harvesting to plant the new fields at the optimum time.
A Single Solution
When asked what could solve the problem, the unanimous answer from growers and farm advocates was a guest worker program.
Seventy-eight percent of U.S. farm workers are foreign-born, with 75 percent of them coming from Mexico, according to the 2009 National Agricultural Workers Survey. About half of crop workers are unauthorized, according to the same survey.
"There’s just nothing being done in the management of our immigration policy," Am Rhein said. "It’s just a complete train wreck."
Still, new legislation could help down the line.
"There are a couple Congressmen working on some potential legislation to make it easier for workers to come here and work. I don’t know how close we are to passing these bills, but hopefully they will provide a solution," said Gass.
In the meantime, crops are rotting and growers are already worried about next summer.
"I think we're seeing the tip of the iceberg," said Jess Brown, director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau. "... What does this mean for next year? That's the scary part."