'Broken' immigration system leaves Californian farmers short of labour

As Donald Trump pushes for tougher immigration policies, farmers in America's breadbasket 

Jeremy B. White
San Francisco
Thursday 10 August 2017 17:23 BST
Workers plant crops near Fresno, California in May of 2015. Growers in this agriculturally abundant region have grappled for years with a labor shortage.
Workers plant crops near Fresno, California in May of 2015. Growers in this agriculturally abundant region have grappled for years with a labor shortage. (Reuters//Lucy Nicholson )

In America’s most abundant agricultural region, where immigrant pickers have long sustained the economy, many farmers are less concerned with the illegal immigration decried by Donald Trump than with finding enough people to harvest their crops.

As Mr Trump pushes the tougher immigration policies that helped propel him to the oval office, California farmers continue their years-long wait for a federal solution to a lingering labour shortage.

“The United States hasn't had major immigration reform since 1986,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “We haven't came up with a program that helps to solve the labour situation, and thus we’re in the situation we’re in now.”

The labour pool for California’s agriculture industry is linked directly to immigration. According to a federal survey, more than 90 per cent of crop workers in California are foreign-born, although that share has dipped slightly over the last few decades. More than two million immigrants are estimated to live illegally in California - nearly a quarter of the total population of such immigrants across America.

And more than with any other domestic policy issue, Mr Trump’s agenda has been defined by a harder line on immigration. The President has sought a freeze on refugees, embraced a proposal to drastically slash immigration numbers and regularly blamed illegal immigration for economic stagnation.

But the dearth of farmworkers began before Trump launched his presidential campaign, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. He said labour shortages have periodically plagued farmers in his county, a leading producer of strawberries and lettuce, thanks to “failed federal immigration policy.”

In particular, Mr Groot said, the lack of a guest worker program or a path to legalisation for “the people living in our communities for decades and working in our fields” has done damage - a problem he said has been exacerbated as permanent residents age and a farmers have seen “lack of replacements coming to California.”

Apricot farmer Daniel Bays recounted a similar story: the children of an earlier generation of pickers are reluctant to follow their parents into the fields, and “you don’t have the newer immigrants coming in just because of our broken immigration policy and broken guest worker programmes,” the Stanislaus County grower said.

Migration data bear out those demographic trends. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Mexicans leaving America for their home country exceeded the number moving to America by more than 100,000 over the period spanning 2009 to 2014.

“It’s no secret that the number off individuals coming here from other countries has substantially went down not only compared to last year but compared to the last several years,” Mr Jacobsen said.

Farmers have responded to the lack of labour by trying to retain current workers with incentives like bonuses and by mechanising their operations, according to a report by UC Davis agriculture professor emeritus Philip Martin.

Not finding enough people to pick crops before they rot is “one of those constant fears” for farmers, Mr Jacobsen said. But this year, be said, “there’s definitely some additional concern about having enough hands.”

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Multiple factors could be contributing, Mr Jacobsen said, including a later and wetter spring that has shifted the harvest window and an improving economic situation in Mexico. But whatever the exact mix of causes, in Fresno County - a crop-heavy hub in California’s Central Valley where almonds and grapes grow in abundance - farmers are looking to the looming harvest season with trepidation.

“I expect the next six weeks to really be telling the tale as to where we stand with our labour force,” Mr Jacobsen said.

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