×

Immigrant rule to mean fewer—not more—farm workers

A recent executive action by President Barack Obama to protect some 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation may have the paradoxical effect of making it harder for farmers to find workers as they leave agriculture for better work elsewhere.

"The people who are here that are subject to the executive order may choose to go to another industry and work in a field where it's not such intensive labor outdoors. It's not seasonal; it's 12 months of the year where they get benefits," said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, the California and Arizona trade group representing producers for about half the fruits and vegetables in the country.

"Clearly, we need immigration reform in this country," Nassif added. "We had hoped to get it through legislation. That didn't happen."

Read More The shortage of farm workers and your grocery bill

A Senate-approved bipartisan immigration bill originally drafted in 2013 was seen as helping the U.S. agriculture industry alleviate the current farm worker shortage by providing incentives for undocumented workers already in the United States to stay in agriculture. That bill, which lacked backing in the GOP-led House, allowed farm workers the opportunity to change their immigrant status with a five-year pathway to citizenship.

"There's a potential to be short 15 to 20 percent of labor," said Victor Smith, president and owner of JV Farms, a major vegetable producer with operations in California, Arizona and Colorado. "I'm disappointed in our whole leadership in Washington, D.C., combined about not being able to deal with this issue."

Smith, who also serves as the chairman of the Western Growers board, indicated that the recent cold snap and subsequent warm-up means vegetable crops "we didn't harvest in the last few weeks will bunch up on us. And so we will have the spikes in volume, and we're really concerned that we have enough labor to harvest the crops."

Workers on an artichoke farm in Camarillo, California.
Source: Jeff Daniels
Workers on an artichoke farm in Camarillo, California.

An estimated 50,000 seasonal workers in California are expected to leave field or packer jobs in 2015, according to Manuel Cunha, president of California's Nisei Farmers League, a Fresno, California-based agriculture trade group specializing in labor, immigration, transportation and environmental issues. Cunha, who farms his own citrus ranch outside Fresno, estimates approximately 85 percent of the state's seasonal farmworkers "have document problems."

Also affecting the supply of workers to farms has been a decrease in the number of foreign laborers, especially those coming from Mexico as migrant workers. More of them are finding jobs in a stronger economy in Mexico and choosing to stay home rather than come to the U.S. and work in the fields, according to Nassif of Western Growers. Mexico, too, is now importing foreign labor to meet its own agriculture needs.

January and February are typically busy months for the state's estimated 4,600 wine-grape growers, as they have workers pruning vines ahead of the spring growth and use tractors to clear away cuttings and debris.

Read MoreBreakfast may be getting more expensive in California

"We'll finish up the pruning and then roll into some of our other operations," said Brian Talley, president of Talley Farms and Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, California. "We're going to need a pretty good-size crew basically next week, when we start pruning, through June effectively."

Increasing competition from construction jobs and entry-level restaurant and hotel work "could make it worse," said Talley. "We raised wages fairly dramatically over the past 18 months. We feel like there's not a lot of capacity to increase wages and stay profitable."

Brook Williams, owner of Duvarita Vineyard in Lompoc, California, just lost his lead tractor driver to a construction job. And he said the contractor who does all his farm labor hiring has "been struggling to keep solid crews in the vineyards. There is a lot of competition from berries and construction, which pay more."

"With a recovering economy, traditional field laborers are finding better-paying jobs in construction, landscaping and other agricultural products," said Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. "It was an especially challenging harvest this past fall for vineyard workers because many vineyards ripened much earlier than normal and all around the same time. Normally, the harvest season starts later in the year and lasts longer."

The competition for labor has led some farmers to exit the fresh produce markets altogether during the summer months, when there's a big need for farm workers to harvest in the fields. It's not unusual in the peak months to see seasonal farm workers earn wages upwards of $20 to $25 per hour when pickers are paid piecemeal on produce such as strawberries.

Read MoreFarming in America: 'There's a growing discontent'

"In general, across all segments of agriculture, we're concerned about farm labor," said Craig Underwood, owner of Underwood Family Farms in Moorpark, California. "It's not going to improve—it will only get more difficult to get labor because there's constant migration from the farm to cities and other types of jobs."

Underwood, who farms everything from chilis for Sriracha sauce to lettuce, squash and citrus, just reduced the farm's planting schedule due in part to labor costs. "We don't grow anything for fresh-market shipping in the summer," he said. "We just found there were too many suppliers across the country, and labor was hard to come by—and we never made any money."

Drought reduces demand for workers

However, the severe California drought is playing an opposite role in demand for labor, especially in California's San Joaquin Valley, where many of the state's fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown. This past year, a lack of water forced farmers in the Central Valley to tear out orchards and to leave an estimated 400,000 acres, or 5 percent of the state's irrigated farmland fallow, according to researchers at the University of California-Davis.

"The drought had a beneficial affect temporarily on the availability of ag workers, since there were fewer crops to tend to and harvest," said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. "We've had some rain, so we expect row-crop acres will come back into production this year, and there will be more competition for workers."

Kathy Simpson, general manager of Barbour Wines in Saint Helena, California, said vintners in the Napa Valley region utilize a different approach in dealing with the industry's tightening labor pool. She said that the wine growers in the Napa area tend to have full-time vineyard employees and supplement them with more workers during harvest.

Read MoreDrone gap? US may have one in farming, say experts

"The guys we employ are pretty much year-round," said Simpson. "When we do have a shortage of labor is during harvest when we have more work than employees can manage. That is the time of year when we go out and search for workers."

Meanwhile, some wine grape and raisin grape farmers are resorting to mechanized harvesters to reduce costs, increase output and get around the farm labor shortage. Mechanical harvesting is also popular in California among large producers of olives, nuts and processed tomatoes.

Approximately 16 percent of California's raisin grape acreage, or nearly 31,500 acres, were harvested in 2013 by mechanical means rather than by human hands, according to the USDA.

Back in 1990, it took an estimated 50,000 workers to harvest the state's raisin crop. In 2008, roughly 30,000 workers were needed and more recently that number has fallen to around 25,000 workers, according to the Nisei Farmers League.