Time for those farmers to get off their asses and use American ingenuity.
“If we can’t change the way we’re doing business, we’re at risk,” said Brad Goehring, a fourth-generation wine grape grower in Lodi.
The state has been struggling with this farm labor shortage issue for years, but it’s gotten to a point where farmers are fed-up.
As harvesting season gets underway, many growers in need of workers fear they may lose their crops, and President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration orders appears to only make matters worse.
Goehring says it’s become more and more difficult to find people to do this work.
“It’s been a real struggle and it’s been increasing the last 5-6 years,” he said.
Goehring is among the growing number of agricultural businessmen in California who have tried a number of strategies to lure workers. From putting ads in the paper to offering benefits- such as health insurance and 401(k)s, Goehring has even increased pay on certain jobs up to $22 an hour.
“Really nothing seems to work when you raise your wages, the guy next door raises his—just keeps going up,” he said.
And springtime is when the labor shortage hits the hardest.
“We had to pick and choose vineyards that were gonna forego certain operations, those are the hard decisions we have to make, and we lose a lot of sleep over it,” said Goehring.
The San Joaquin Farm Bureau says California’s minimum wage going up to $15 an hour and regulations on farmworker overtime are making things even more difficult.
“The cost for our growers to just simply put that product on your table, is going through the roof,” said executive director the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Bruce Blodgett.
Blodgett adds, “The real frustration is they drive the costs up, the commodities we produce are being produced in other countries a lot cheaper than they’re produced here.”
California’s Vice Chair of Agriculture, Assemblyman Devon Mathis says some of the state’s regulations are hurting farmers.
“What can we do in California? We can stop writing laws like ag worker overtime. Farming is not a 9-to-5 job. Farmers aren’t giving the seventh-day work anymore, cause they can’t they afford that overhead and margin,” said Mathis.
So the big question surrounding the state’s farmworker shortage: why are we seeing such a big drop in numbers?
“People from rural Mexico are not going into farm look like they did before,” said UC Davis Professor of Agriculture J-Edward Taylor.
Taylor says more than 90 percent of our hired farm workers– come from Mexico, but we’re seeing 150,000 fewer farm workers each year.
“Young people growing up in rural Mexico are getting more education that gives them a ticket to higher paying jobs that demand more skills and provide them with more stable employment than they would get in agriculture. This is a case in which what is good news for Mexico, is bad news for CA farm work,” said Taylor.
President Trump has raised tensions on immigration with his plans to build a wall at the Mexican-U.S. border and although he says he will protect the U.S. farm industry– the fear among these workers is real.
“Yes, I’m scared that I won’t return home to see my kids who are waiting for me,” said farmworker Maria, a single mom working to support her kids.
Goehring says he tried to get Americans to do the work.
“No one’s ever lasted through lunch on the first day. They just walk off the job and we don’t hear from them again. It tells us Americans simply don’t want the jobs,” he said.
So with fewer workers coming into the U.S, what does this mean for the future of California’s agriculture?
“We have a very interesting future ahead of us, and a very challenging one,” said Professor Taylor. He adds that based on their studies, the alternative is to find new ways to grow these crops with fewer workers, so it’s all about technology.
Many growers in desperate need of workers are turning to machinery to get the job done like this a leaf puller which replaces 25 crew members for a period of 6 weeks.
Taylor says as Mexico develops, the workers we used to depend on aren’t coming back and farmers more than ever are hoping this administration will do something to help.
“We’ve advocated to Congress for a guest worker’s program make sure we have enough labor, and unfortunately it’s fallen on deaf ears,” said Blodgett.
Some farmers in California are now experimenting with other robotic replacements for farm workers to help pick crops that are traditionally only picked by hand.
And Goehring says if this is not resolved soon, he may have to reluctantly replace his grape business with almonds because if all his estate was filled with nut trees, it can be managed by three employees.