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Salinas Valley hit by farm worker shortage plaguing rest of U.S.

4:35 PM, Dec 7, 2012   |    comments
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Raju Chebium and Erin Kelly
Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Farmers from California to New York struggled to find enough people to harvest their crops this season, a shortage they blame on federal bureaucratic requirements and a sharp decline in migrant laborers willing to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

State laws designed to crack down on migrant laborers, who make up the bulk of the nation's seasonal farm workers, are also to blame, agriculture officials say.

"We see shortages in all parts of the country," said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau. "Farmers are struggling with fewer bodies out there to harvest the crop. They're definitely stressed."

A California Farm Bureau Federation survey released this month showed widespad shortages throughout the state, especially among growers of labor-intensive crops like tree fruits, vegetables and berries.

Sixty-one percent of the nearly 800 growers surveyed said they were shorthanded by a little or a lot this year.

Norman Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said about 60 percent of local growers were hit hard by the labor shortage, which was particularly acute this year compared to years past.

Growers were at least one crew short, so they had to make existing laborers work double. Vineyards had a particularly tough time finding experienced grape pickers, Groot said.

Among those affected was Ocean Mist Farms, a major artichoke grower in Castroville.

The farm, which also grows broccoli, lettuce and other vegetables, saw a shortage of 20 percent to 30 percent during the March-November growing season, according to Jorge Suarez, the director of strategic planning and human resources.

"The inflow of people is less," Suarez said. "The opportunities in Mexico have increased in terms of jobs and education. The risk to come across has increased. And the cost for some of those folks that do (migrant labor) for a living has dramatically increased."

Farmers elsewhere in the U.S. report similar problems:

-- Maureen Torrey, vice psident of marketing for Torrey Farms, Inc., a family-owned dairy farm in upstate New York, said the family runs "help wanted" ads in the local newspaper every day but still can't find enough workers.

-- Nan Walden, vice psident of the Green Valley Pecan Co. in the Santa Cruz Valley south of Tucson, Ariz., said the family farm needs to hire about 50 to 60 workers during the fall and winter harvest season but is finding it increasingly difficult because of the chilling effect of the state's tough anti-immigration law.

Strict immigration policies in states such as Arizona, Alabama and Georgia have scared away skilled migrant workers and a federal visa program for agriculture workers has failed to meet farmers' needs, said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

Agriculture has one of the highest shares of foreign-born and illegal immigrant workers among U.S. industries, according to a February 2012 report by Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. More than three-fourths of the roughly 2.4 million farm workers are immigrants, usually born in Mexico. More than half of farm workers are illegal immigrants, the report says.

"Upwards of 70 percent of the hardworking people who are feeding us frankly aren't from around here, and their papers (work documents) aren't so good," Regelbrugge said. "We lack a legally authorized work force."

The American Farm Bureau and other farm groups are working on a plan to psent to the new Congress that would allow more migrant laborers to work legally on U.S. farms.

The 113th Congress convenes in January. Although the current Congress will meet in a "lame duck" session through mid-December, there is not enough time for them to address the issue, farm lobbyists say. Also, farm groups are still working on a blueprint for the legislation.

"We need comphensive reform, there's no doubt about it," said Groot of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. "We need to manage our borders better, we need a guest worker program that works for California specialty crops, and we need to have some sort of manner in which we can issue visas and get people in a very short period of time without having to go through a lot of paperwork, bureaucracy and expense."

But critics say such a plan would provide cheap labor for farmers at the expense of U.S. taxpayers, who would pick up the tab for educating the workers' children and paying their health care costs.

"If we ask farmers to pay for education and health care, they'd mostly say, 'No, we'd like taxpayers to do that,'" said Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates reduced immigration. "It creates a large-scale social cost."

Camarota said farmers should be able to find legally authorized workers through an existing federal program that allows foreign citizens to obtain visas for seasonal farm work in the United States.

But the program, known as the H-2A visa program, is widely criticized by farmers as unworkable.

"It's cumbersome, it's expensive and it's inflexible," said Suarez of Ocean Mist Farms.

The government awards only about 50,000 H-2A visas â€" a fraction of the 1.2 million workers U.S. workers need annually, he said.

Dairy, hog, and poultry farmers complain that the program doesn't help them because they need workers year-round and the visas are designed for seasonal harvest work that lasts less than a year.

Crop farmers say the program is too bureaucratic and doesn't deliver workers quickly enough when farmers need them most. It also imposes what many farmers see as unfair requirements -- such as constructing housing for seasonal workers that may only be needed for a few weeks to pick strawberries or other produce.

Most farmers end up hiring workers without going through the program. That means possibly hiring illegal immigrants with false documents and facing federal sanctions.

The Obama administration has stepped up its audits of employers to check compliance with federal immigration laws. Farmers can be fined and forced to fire their farm workers if the workers' documents cannot be verified.

From January 2009 through April of this year, the Obama administration had audited more than 7,500 employers -- including farmers -- suspected of hiring illegal labor and imposed about $100 million in fines, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Regelbrugge said farmers began to see real shortages in 2006-07 in certain places, such as in Northern California's pear-growing region. Since then, it has been happening with more frequency in more places, he said.

"We don't cry shortage very often," he said. "It's happening right now."

But Camarota, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said he believes farmers are exaggerating shortages. The federal government does not keep statistics on the number of seasonal farm workers employed in the United States each year.

"If there was a widespad shortage of farm labor in this country, then farm wages should have gone up fast with desperate farmers competing for workers," Camarota said. "And that hasn't happened. In the past five years, wages have only gone up 1 percent."

Contact Raju Chebium at rchebium@gannett.com and Erin Kelly at ekelly@gannett.com

Gannett Washington Bureau

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