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Survey reflects California labor shortage

The California Farm Bureau Federation released its first labor survey in five years which shows a continuing shortage of workers for farmers with labor-intensive crops such as tree fruit and wine grapes.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on October 18, 2017 8:37AM

Pickers harvest strawberries near Santa Maria, Calif. A California Farm Bureau survey has found that many farmers cannot find the seasonal farmworkers they need.

California Strawberry Commission

Pickers harvest strawberries near Santa Maria, Calif. A California Farm Bureau survey has found that many farmers cannot find the seasonal farmworkers they need.

SACRAMENTO — More than half of the 762 farmers and ranchers who responded to a California Farm Bureau Federation survey say they experienced labor shortages in the past year.

The survey, conducted in summer, showed 55 percent of respondents had employee shortages and 69 percent of farmers who hired seasonal workers faced shortages.

Problems are more acute among farmers whose crops require the most intensive hand labor such as tree fruit and grapes. A large majority of the respondents grow tree fruit, wine grapes or nuts. Respondents also included growers of table grapes, vegetables, rice, wheat, corn, hay and nursery crops, as well as dairy and livestock producers.

The findings are consistent with those of a similar survey conducted by the Farm Bureau in 2012.

“Despite all the efforts California farmers and ranchers have made to find and hire people to work on their operations, they still can’t fine enough willing and qualified employees,” Paul Wenger, the organization’s president, said.

Farmers have offered higher wages, benefits and more year-round jobs and they have tried to mechanize operations where possible and changed crops or left ground idle, but shortages persist, Wenger said.

Higher wages and moves toward mechanization will continue but the survey underscores a need for congressional action in immigration reform, he said.

“Only 3 percent of the farmers in our survey said they had used the existing H-2A (visa) agricultural immigration program,” Wenger said.

Even though more farmers have tried it, H-2A remains too cumbersome for most, he said.

The program requires farmers to provide housing for H-2A and domestic workers, pay transportation from and to the country of origin and sets a minimum wage often higher than state minimum wages but below what can be earned on piece-rate pay.

Farmers need an improved system for hiring foreign workers, he said.

A majority of farmers reporting shortages said they were unable to recruit up to 50 percent of their seasonal needs; 15 percent were unable to recruit more than 50 percent of their seasonal needs.

Of farmers reporting shortages, a majority employ 15 or fewer people on a permanent basis and hire 50 or fewer during peak season. Of those farmers, 36 percent were tree fruit growers and 30 percent were wine grape growers.

The survey quoted an unnamed Orange County farmer as saying that if the workforce from south of the border dries up so does U.S. farming, and then produce will be imported from southern countries with little or not oversight on food safety.

The California Farm Bureau Federation has 48,000 members. The Farm Bureau has more than 6.2 million members nationwide.


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