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Immigration Least of Farmer’s Worries

Victor Gonzalez, the owner of Atkins Nursery, stands in front of his oldest chirimoya trees.
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Above: Victor Gonzalez, the owner of Atkins Nursery, stands in front of his oldest chirimoya trees.

Audio

Aired 11/8/10

An estimated 80,000 farms in California and many more along the border rely on undocumented workers to keep labor costs down. But for many farm owners, the nation's current debate over immigration is the least of their concerns.

— Victor Gonzalez is sitting behind his office desk at 9 a.m., taking a few dollars from a customer buying a bag full of avocados. His 21-year-old son, Victor Junior, is standing nearby, sifting through receipts.

It's a slow morning, but Gonzalez says it's been like this for days. One reason is their two main crops, avocado and citrus, aren't in season. But Gonzalez says their overall business is hurting. What was once a medium-sized wholesale farming operation in Fallbrook, is now little more than a father and son produce stand.

"A lot of the people move out of California, to New Mexico, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi," says Gonzalez. "We had close to 80 workers and everybody moved."

Gonzalez had to lay off a majority of his workers. Now he only has four workers left. They take care of all the fruit trees in the 21-acre nursery, harvest the produce and keep the pests at bay. It's not easy work -- there are no benefits or holidays, the pay is about $8 per hour and the turnover is high.

Many immigrants who get their start in the agriculture industry choose to leave for higher paying jobs in factories or casinos -- especially if they're in the U.S. legally.

Gonzalez is an exception to that rule. He came to California from Jalisco, Mexico, as a guest farm worker in 1969. He worked for a farm owner dubbed Mr. Avocado in Fallbrook for many years. When his boss died, Gonzalez bought the farm. At one point, he was one of the main suppliers of fruit trees to Home Depot. But he says that starting in the 1990s, much began to change in the farming industry.

"Now we have fruit from Chile; limes and guavas from Mexico," says Gonzalez, pointing to his own fruit tree seedlings in the greenhouse. "We used to get an average of about a $1 or $1.50 a pound on the guavas on the wholesale market. Right now we see the fruit 30 to 50 cents a pound. And the cost of growing them is very high."

Gonzalez shows the young avocado trees inside his greenhouse.
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Above: Gonzalez shows the young avocado trees inside his greenhouse.

Gonzalez chats with a customer and is followed by the farm dog, Chispita.
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Above: Gonzalez chats with a customer and is followed by the farm dog, Chispita.

A tour of Gonzalez's farm shows there are many fruit trees waiting to be picked, and not enough workers to do the labor.

One of the workers, Jose Cruz Flores, has been working at the farm for 15 years. He's witnessed its ups and downs. But nothing compares to the challenges of today, he says.

"Now we have less of a demand for our products due to the economy," says Cruz Flores. "Besides, the water costs are getting higher. All this has meant that we have less workers on site."

Cruz Flores says the economic slump and the price of water have hurt the farm. He says he's one of many laborers who benefited from having steady work here. Recurring droughts and the rising cost of water affect small and medium-sized farms all along the border, and make it difficult for farm owners to hire more help.

James Gerber is a Professor of Economics at San Diego State University, focusing on border issues. He says it's in the interest of American farm owners to do whatever it takes to keep their workers -- documented and undocumented alike.

"They want access to this farm labor, American native-born workers are not taking these jobs," says Gerber. "So it seems to me that the political forces are in place that eventually there will be some sort of compromise that will create a guest worker program for farm labor, at least."

That compromise could lead to a guest worker program like the one that brought Victor Gonzalez to California in 1969, perhaps. The Gonzalez family says they've hired workers from Chile through the guest workers program in the past.

They would hire more today, if the process wasn't so cumbersome, bureaucratic and costly. By hiring undocumented workers, farmers like Gonzalez are able to keep labor costs down.

Gonzalez's son, Junior, says they often get dozens of requests per week by people looking for jobs. Many of them are undocumented, but that's not an issue for them.

"I guess we don't really see too many problems with that," says Junior, a hip-looking guy, seemingly out of place in this rural setting. "At least I don't see them."

For the Gonzalez family, the bigger issue at this point is not their workers' immigration status, but whether they can stay afloat to hire any workers at all.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | November 8, 2010 at 8:02 a.m. ― 4 years ago

Maybe all those racists, nativists, and xenophobes that post on signonsandiego.com and KFMB 760 know US citizens that can fill Mr. Gonzalez's payroll since they always claim that clandestine border crossers "take jobs" from Americans and lower the average wages???

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Avatar for user 'Ali999'

Ali999 | November 8, 2010 at 9:09 a.m. ― 4 years ago

Missionaccomplished | today at 8:02 a.m. ― 1 hour, 2 minutes ago
Maybe all those racists, nativists, and xenophobes that post on signonsandiego.com and KFMB 760 know US citizens that can fill Mr. Gonzalez's payroll since they always claim that clandestine border crossers "take jobs" from Americans and lower the average wages???
-------------------
Actually, illegal aliens do do all of the above. Clandestine border crossers ARE taking jobs from legal workers--those whom the Gonzalez family have been hiring through guest worker programs. Legal green card holders from countries such as Somalia also do agricultural work even though they come on family reunfication or refugee visas. As for lowering wages, well, farm wages have decreased in real terms and the average farm worker earns well below the poverty level. Of course, illegal aliens don't generally work in agriculture, as this article mentions in passing. Even illegal aliens prefer to work in industries such as fast food, cleaning, and construction where they compete directly with AMERICANS and lower the wages in the process. For example, a Target store in California fired 50 illegal aliens after an ICE audit. Americans won't work at Target? The Pew Hispanic Center found that MOST construction jobs and even 25% of day labor jobs are done by LEGAL workers. And of course, were the U.S. to implement an amnesty that allowe farm workers to legalize, what's going to keep THEM on the farm, particularly if employers such as Mr. Gonzalez keep on hiring yet more illegal aliens to keep wages down?

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | November 8, 2010 at 3:32 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Of course, illegal aliens don't generally work in agriculture, as this article mentions in passing. "

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

"Immigration Reform & Agriculture" by Wm Kandel & Ashok Mishra, Resource and Rural Economics Division, Economic Research Service, USDA, March 2007

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Avatar for user 'richtheguru'

richtheguru | November 8, 2010 at 8:17 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Let's tackle that issue. Let's go to a High School, Take the top 10...oh heck, let's make it top 20% of the students and ask them what jobs they'd want.
Now, I haven't actually taken this survey, but I'm pretty sure that very small numbers would consider the career of....working the fields, fast food or cleaning. I'm sure that construction would rate pretty low as well.

I'll go out on a limb and say that you don't work any of these fields (no pun intended). The beauty of being a US citizen is knowing that you are totally capable of working one of these jobs. Now, I've posed this question before and have heard nothing. How many illegal (those coming from south of the controversial border wall) immigrants are working in the US as C-level executives? Engineers? Doctors? or any other position that pays 6 digits? I guess Americans would rather strive for these jobs than for one at Target...go figure. Honestly, when I make 6 digits a year, I don't think I'll care too much who picked my tomato or who sold me my shirt.

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