Worker shortage threatens ag

FRESNO -- The San Joaquín Valley's multi-billion agricultural industry could be severely impacted if farmers can't locate enough farmworkers this fall.

That was the assessment ag leaders made last Thursday in encouraging Congress to back off proposed legislation that would require growers to use the E-Verify system to check on the legal status of workers.

Although the legislation introduced by Republicans will most likely not go anywhere, Nisei Farmers League president Manuel Cunha Jr. believes the harm has already been made due to tough, anti-immigrant laws adopted in Georgia and Arizona.

"The (farm labor) shortage is going around the country," said Cunha at a press conference. "If they implement E-Verify, this industry will have to shut down."

Farm labor contractor Earl Hall, who provides workers to growers in 26 counties, said the labor shortage is the worst he's seen in 47 years in the business.

That means ripening fruits and vegetables could not get picked on time this fall.

"We're 20 percent short in strawberry pickers," said Hall, who owns and operates Hall Management.

That is bad for strawberry growers, said Hall, because the ripe berries must be picked in three to four days. When they are not picked in time for market, pickers must still get in the fields and pick the bad strawberries and dump them in the furrows.

"Mechanization is not the answer. We still need a quality work force," said Hall.

Cunha said the anti-immigrant legislation, lack of comprehensive immigration reform and México's drug-trafficking violence has driven undocumented farmworkers away.

Experts estimate that 80 percent of ag workers in the Valley are undocumented.

Fresno County ag commissioner Carol Hafner said she gets telephone calls from growers looking for workers.

"They'll tell me, 'My crops are ready to be picked, can you help us with labor?'" said Hafner. "There is definitely a shortage out there.

In Fresno County, that means that the $5.9 billion in crops that "are at risk if they don't make it to market," said Hafner.

The weather has delayed the raisin harvest, with growers weary of fall rains or a labor shortage that could ruin or delay their harvest.

"No two growing seasons are alike," said Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau and a grower. "California farmers cannot continue to go, after nine months of investment, not knowing if someone will be available to pick their crops."

Chris Valadez, who is in charge of governmental affairs for the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said Congress' failure to pass immigration reform has contributed to the farm labor shortage.

Some growers in Oregon and Washington are swooping down and recruiting workers from northern California, which compounds the labor shortage in that region.

A Madera County farm labor contractor, said Cunha, couldn't locate enough workers to pick his crops, so he had to resort to using another farm labor contractor.

That contractor missed the press conference because he had to travel to the fields to make sure his workers were not recruited by someone else, according to Cunha.

Despite high unemployment in the Valley, ag leaders said previous experience shows that people are unwilling to take the jobs that are normally handled by undocumented workers.

Hall said 20 to 25 workers fill out a typical crew, but some crews have been whittled down to 13 to 18 workers because of the shortage. That usually means he'll have two supervisors on the same crew, which translates into extra costs for Hall.

Cunha said workers have told him that drug cartels are stopping them as they head to the United States.

"They're telling me that they can't because if they do come they will apprehend one of the family members and hold them hostage to move drugs," said Cunha.

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