Farm labor shortage

Farm workers in a Salinas Valley field. 

Not even paying higher wages is solving the farm labor shortage problem in California, a recent survey of more than 1,000 farmers discovered, according to a press release from the Monterey County Farm Bureau on April 30.

Conducted jointly by the California Farm Bureau Federation and UC Davis, the 2019 survey showed that 86 percent of farmers had raised wages in the past five years in an effort to secure enough workers to harvest their crops.

Unfortunately it hasn’t helped much. At least 70 percent said they have had increasing trouble hiring enough employees the past two years. Immigration policies continue to be a chief reason.

To deal with the decline, 61 percent of farmers say in the past five years they used a farm labor contractor to recruit employees.

More farmers are also investigating the H-2A visa program, but only 6 percent said they actually enrolled in the program. The report cites that the program’s parameters continue to be inadequate to meet the needs of farmers. H-2A visas requires growers to provide transportation to and from home and the seasonal work site, as well as housing during the work season.

Some farmers reported reducing the number of acres farmed. One said, “We have had to abandon berry fields and row crop fields that were good harvest quality due to the unavailable workers during critical harvest times.”

Farmers also said they changed some of their methods, like changing their mix of crops and delaying or reducing weeding and pruning. More than half reported that they are starting to use mechanization for harvesting and of those, 56 percent pointed to labor shortages as the reason.

“The survey shows farmers have tried—and are trying—all the tactics available to them,” CFBF President Jamie Johansson said in a press release. “The missing element is an improved agricultural immigration system, to match willing employees with farm employers.”

The survey report states that farmers in California and across the U.S. openly acknowledge that they rely on a mostly immigrant workforce.

“Efforts to hire U.S.-born employees on farms have remained unsuccessful,” the report states.

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Farmers noted that any efforts to increase the workforce need to be complemented by agricultural reform that will offer legal status to existing employees and allows entry to guest workers.

The report ends with a warning that other research shows the number of farm workers will continue to decline in the future.

At the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership 2019 Regional Economic Summit on May 2, Taylor Farms Chairman and CEO Bruce Taylor told the audience that part of the industry is increasingly moving south into Mexico in part because of policy issues.

He also said the drive to increase the minimum wage in California is not sustainable for the agriculture industry. As wages increase, the industry is moving more toward automation.

“The good news is the jobs left will be high-paying jobs, the bad news is they won’t be entry-level jobs,” Taylor said.

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