As young workers avoid agriculture, farm labor shortage looms

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SELMA, Calif. -- Vicente Contreras is 70 years old and says he is still fit and hearty enough to perform the hard labor of California's farm fields.

Mr. Contreras concedes his knees hurt when he climbs ladders to pick peaches, nectarines and plums for $8 to $9 an hour, six days a week, during the peak summer harvest. And during the less rigorous pruning of grapevines in winter, he can't move as fast as the young workers -- at least when they happen to be around.

Amid the verdant fields and orchards of America's most bountiful agricultural region, California farmworkers are graying. A labor shortage deepens as fewer younger workers arrive from Mexico and more head home to stay.

Increasingly, California's $44.3 billion agricultural industry must rely on the well-calloused hands of older workers who came many years ago to fill jobs pruning, planting, picking and packing.

These days at Chandler Farms, a fourth-generation family ranch 20 miles south of Fresno, veteran workers like Mr. Contreras are in the majority.

On a recent weekday, Antonio Magdaleno, 59, cut grapevines in a neighboring field. Mr. Magdaleno emigrated from Michoacan, Mexico, in 1973 and has spent 36 of his last 40 years on Central Valley farms.

His features bronzed and weathered, Mr. Magdaleno said he looks forward to the mid-winter pruning, "a beautiful time and something special," marking the start of the growing season.

"It's always been us," Mr. Magdaleno said in Spanish. "Time has passed, and we're older. The young people want to work in factories and other places."

The aging of California's agricultural workforce reflects a convergence of trends.

In many cases, the children of farmworkers who arrived decades ago have little interest in fieldwork. Tighter U.S. immigration enforcement, as well as brutal cartel-driven violence along the Mexican border, have deterred many potential workers from attempting to cross.

And, amid a rebounding economy in Mexico, Mexican farms are facing their own labor shortage and have plenty of work to offer at home.

The upshot, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation, is that more than 70 percent of state agricultural producers anticipate a worker shortage starting this spring and worsening through the growing season. Some officials estimate the labor force could fall by more than 80,000 farmworkers -- down from the 450,000 workers on whom farmers have come to rely for the peak harvest of late summer.

"Basically, we're running out of low-skilled workers. People simply are not doing farm work to the extent they were doing before," said J. Edward Taylor, a University of California-Davis economist who has studied the migration of farmworkers from Mexico.

From California's Central Valley to Washington, D.C., the graying workforce adds urgency to the debate over immigration reform.

Farm lobbyists and elected officials are discussing remedies that include granting legal status to more than 1 million undocumented farmworkers in the United States and establishing an expanded guest worker visa program for agriculture to ensure a steady supply of laborers.

"We have to try to find a system that is not going to cause a major disruption to our industry," said Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. The industry group favors letting undocumented farmworkers stay in the country while applying for legal status, as well as drawing in seasonal guest workers to replenish the labor force.

California agricultural interests estimate that as many as 70 percent to 90 percent of farmworkers in the state may be here illegally, often presenting counterfeit documents to secure work.

Bill Chandler, 73, runs the family ranch in Selma with his son, John, who is 35. Mr. Chandler says his workforce largely consists of older laborers who got permanent residency or U.S. citizenship under a 1986 immigration reform law signed by President Ronald Reagan.

"There are always people in the ag labor force who don't have [proper] papers," he said. "So we're all scrambling for what labor is here. And they're older folks."

He added: "They're special. They're really special."

Mr. Taylor of UC-Davis said economic factors may continue to drive down the number of farmworkers and prompt growers to convert to less labor-intensive crops.

That is already happening at the 480-acre Chandler Farms. Because of difficulty finding workers for harvesting fruit, the family decided to cut back by 40 acres on peaches and plums and use more land to grow almonds, which can be harvested by machine.

"I don't know if it is going to get better for a while," Mr. Chandler said. "If you want peaches or plums, or strawberries or lettuce or tomatoes, we need a program in which we can have labor. I don't have the answers."

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