Farm Workers

Farmworkers pick lettuce in Salinas Valley.

Three days after President Donald Trump announced via Twitter that the immigration raids he promised for Sunday, June 23, would be postponed to an unspecified date, the ricochet of the missive was heard inside a meeting room at the County of Monterey Agricultural Center. It turned a routine press conference about the 2018 crop report into a vivid example of one of the struggles faced by the county’s $4.25-billion agriculture industry.

A woman in the audience stood up to relay in Spanish to a panel of industry leaders and Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonazales that just the day before, 15 fieldworkers she supervises did not show up for work out of fear they would be apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

“We’re afraid to go out and work,” she said, with Gonzales serving as translator. “The economy could go down and the crops will perish. What can be done?” 

It’s an intractable problem that serves as just one of many issues beyond farmers’ control. Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot noted earlier in the press conference how events like last year’s recalls over E. coli concerns caused the county’s romaine sales to fall by 24 percent. He said things like labor shortages, tariffs, weather and pests create volatility in the market illustrated by last year’s results.

“Any other business that experiences a 24-percent decline in one year would find that catastrophic, even unsustainable,” Groot said. 

Overall, the gross production value of the county’s crops fell by 3.7 percent since 2017. Leaf lettuce remained the number-one crop, but fell in value by 11 percent due to the romaine recalls. Strawberries remained number two, slightly increasing in value by almost 2 percent, thanks to an increase in pricing of strawberries headed toward processing. Yet head lettuce, at number three, decreased in value due to a drop in pricing.

One of the brightest spots in the report was for wine grapes, which rose from the number six position to number five, thanks to the best year in the wine-growing region’s history, said Kim Stemler, executive director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. 

Above-average rains contributed to increased production in livestock, alfalfa and pastureland. Gonzales also called significant the rise in organic production, with acreage increasing from 22,000 in 2012 to 68,800 last year. 

Gonzales had concerns, however, especially in the decrease in nursery crops. Acreage of all nursery products fell from 1,162 in 2017 to 998. Groot blamed younger consumers “shying away from gardening as a hobby,” among other influences. Not mentioned during the press conference was the role of cannabis growers taking over greenhouses. Gonzales says the presence creates “additional new pressure to the nursery market.” 

Cannabis remains outside of the county’s crop report a year and a half since recreational cannabis became legal and the state and counties began the complicated process of licensing growing operations. It’s still illegal at the federal level, so for now cannabis will stay out of official crop reports out of concern that counties could lose out on federal grants, Gonzales said. There is proposed state legislation that would allow counties to track cannabis production as an addendum.

When it comes to the looming challenge of immigration, Chris Valdez, the president of the Grower-Shipper Association, encouraged the forewoman and other members of the community to share their stories at a public town hall with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue who will be leading a meeting on Friday, June 28 from 9-10am at the Watsonville Water Resources Center.

The deep impact of immigration policies on the community and the industry is something Groot said ag leaders have been working on for more than 15 years, to no avail.

“This is the continued mixed message and rhetoric that we get from Washington, D.C. that we constantly have to deal with,” Groot said. He blamed the failure of elected leaders to create immigration laws that allow immigrant workers to become documented and allow Dreamers to remain legally.

“We need to make sure they are safe and feel safe in our community,” Groot said.

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Pam Marino joined the Monterey County Weekly in November 2016. She covers the communities of Carmel, Pacific Grove, Del Rey Oaks, Pebble Beach and North County. She also covers tourism, health, housing and homelessness, business and agriculture.

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