An agricultural labor shortage plagues Pajaro Valley farms
Abandoning acre upon acre of fruits and vegetables that are ripe and ready for harvesting because of a shortfall in laborers is a scenario no farmer expects, especially in an economic environment with high levels of unemployment. But according to a number of growers in the Pajaro Valley, such as Tim Driscoll, farm manager at Su Talun Farms, this has become the status quo in recent years.
“Almost every grower that I know has suffered from a lack of labor—substantially,” says Driscoll. “In fact, I had to walk by 40 percent of my crop because I didn’t have the hands to pick them, and I didn’t need that many hands.”
Driscoll requires 1.5 workers per acre of land at the peak of his strawberry season, which occurs in June and July. His number of employees fluctuated between nine and 12 during that period last year, and he needed 15 to ensure a full harvest.
“The normal cycle for strawberries begins around the end of March,” says Driscoll. “The last two years I noticed that well into the second week of April we were still looking for people.”
Other local growers, such as John Eiskamp, a sixth-generation farmer in the Pajaro Valley and owner of JE Farms, needs approximately 525 laborers during the peak season to harvest his 240 acres of raspberries and blackberries. Last year he was short about 50 workers.
“We’ve seen labor shortages off and on for the last 10 years or so,” says Eiskamp. “When the economy took its downfall in ’08, we found that we had more people, but in the last couple of years, in respect to labor, we fell short.”
A scarcity in the supply of laborers able and willing to take on agricultural jobs is not a problem that is confined to the Pajaro Valley. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau, nearly two thirds of farmers from across the state reported a shortage in workers.
The survey also found that growers who experienced the most devastating impacts of the shortages were those growing labor-intensive commodities like berries—the most lucrative crop in Santa Cruz County. Of those farmers, 71 percent of survey respondents reported a lack of laborers come harvest time.
“It’s been a real battle in the Pajaro Valley because there is so much labor-intensive crop,” says Dick Peixoto, founder of Lakeside Organic Gardens, which farms around 1,200 acres in the Pajaro Valley. Peixoto says that the shortage has not affected his farm very much, but it does dictate the crops he chooses to grow.
“One of my guys asked me when we were going to get back into peas,” says Peixoto. “I said, ‘Nope, we don’t have enough labor to do that.’ We used to grow a lot of peas but we don’t anymore because it takes more people per acre than other crops.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, just under 70 percent of the national agricultural workforce hails from Mexico as of 2009. Among those laborers, approximately 50 percent are undocumented immigrants.
“It’s my understanding that the economy in Mexico has improved over the last four years, so there are more jobs available there,” says Eiskamp.
When Mexican citizens who might normally immigrate to the United States for agricultural jobs are able to find work at home, American growers fall short.
Since 2010, the Mexican economy has slowly been on the rise. The country’s gross domestic product has increased an average of about 4 percent each year since that time.
The average unemployment rate in Mexico has declined gradually since 2009, and as of 2013 was 4.8 percent, compared to the United States, which had an average unemployment rate of 6.7 percent at the conclusion of 2013. (Despite high unemployment, there has been no reported increase in interest among Americans in taking these difficult and skillful agricultural jobs.)
A Gallup poll released in February 2013 revealed that the desire to immigrate to the United States was, in fact, waning. Among those surveyed in December 2012, 11 percent of Mexican residents claimed that they planned to immigrate to the United States, compared to the 21 percent who planned to do so in 2007.
Eiskamp also points to other factors contributing to the labor shortages like the high cost of living in California. He states that another reason growers may be coming up short is due to agricultural laborers moving to jobs in other sectors such as construction and food service.
Both growers and experts on immigration, such as Doug Keegan, program director of the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, claim that new immigration laws need to be established in order to fill the labor needs of local farms.
“I think that the lack of comprehensive immigration reform is probably the single biggest reason why we don’t have enough workers,” says Keegan. “We have increased the security at the border, we have made it more uncomfortable for a lot of undocumented workers who are here, and at the same time we are not moving forward with a sensible plan that would allow an increase in the amount of workers into the United States.”
In light of the tightened security at the Mexican-American border and a recent rise in deportations, growers have looked to programs that bring in seasonal laborers legally, like the current federal guest worker program, known as H-2A, which allows a limited number of immigrants into the United States for restricted periods.
“There is an existing program for temporary agricultural workers,” says Keegan. “But most growers find that the program is so burdensome, and so difficult to navigate and expensive, that it’s not worth it.”
This leads to an underutilization of the program by growers and laborers.
“If they could take that program and simplify it and streamline it,” says Driscoll, “it would go a long way to answer this whole labor question.”
As the supply of workers drops, the demand for workers among growers increases, along with the wages and benefits that existing laborers now expect.
“Individual workers have the ability to pick and choose what they like to harvest or where they would like to work,” says Eiskamp. “We as growers have raised wages to make sure we are attractive.”
Other solutions to the labor scarcity have been the hiring of unconventional workers.
“We have reached out to high school kids, and this past year we hired some,”
says Eiskamp. “For the most part, it worked out well.”
Many growers, like Driscoll, now offer training programs for those who have never worked the fields, or provide flexible hours to entice laborers.
“We’re also looking at changing the mechanics of how we harvest and improve efficiencies there,” says Eiskamp.
As the available workforce decreases, the acreage that farmers are able to utilize each year without losing money will follow. When growers are forced to scale down, so will other local industries.
“Farming is not just picking and cutting,” says Fourth District County Supervisor Greg Caput. “We are talking about jobs that are all related to agriculture: inspecting, packaging, manufacturing, and shipping. We are talking about thousands of jobs that are all affected.”
Because federal immigration reform is such a multifaceted issue, and foreign laborers comprise such a large portion of the agricultural workforce, growers are doubtful that their labor problems will be solved in the coming seasons.
“Agriculture won’t die because of it,” says Driscoll, “but it is going to shrink.”