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KPBS Midday Edition

Worker Shortage Places Strain On California Farms

Worker Shortage Places Strain On San Diego, Imperial Agriculture Industries
Worker Shortage Places Strain On San Diego, Imperial Agriculture Industries
Worker Shortage Places Strain On San Diego, Imperial Agriculture Industries GUESTS:Eric Larsen, executive director, San Diego County Farm Bureau

This is KPBS Midday addition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Half of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables are produced here in California. But for how much longer? The San Diego Union Tribune reports as farmworker shortage is Kinch causing problems for California growers. Some are changing crops from those that need to be handpicked to machine harvested crops. Some farmers are even moving to Mexico for farmworkers are easier to find. Dreamy is Erik Larsen, executive director of the Farm Bureau. Eric welcome to the show. Has this been a problem for farmers in San Diego for a few years now quick I will say it is a growing problem. We have known this is going to happen. We knew this evolution or this aging of the farmworker workforce was happening we have been pressing for changes in Washington DC. We have recognized it for some time and it's getting to be a very serious problem. What is the extent of the shortage quick Are farmers are now having to make decisions on cropping based on the amount of labor they can find. It gives them great worry because they cannot afford to make a huge investment in a crop and then when it comes to harvest season, find enough folks to harvested. You said one of the reasons is that there are fewer immigrant farmworkers because there is an aging population of farmworkers what are some of the other reasons we are seeing fewer immigrant farmworkers specifically? For one thing, the economy in Mexico has been better. The reality is the majority of our workforce is coming from Mexico. I think there used to be easier systems for workers to come across the border. We have tightened security. There's been a movement to make the borders very secure. Use into political rhetoric and it will get even more secure and difficult. It's more difficult for workers to find their way here. We have not had any kind of expensive reform our opportunities are back to the Reagan administration. That is with the best that is what is creating the problem. These people are aging and there is no one coming in to replace him. Is there any way to know how many farmworkers are here in this country or in the state illegally quick Week can't -- we can't quantify -- but there have been surveys drifted to farmworkers in the conclusion comes back every time. The majority of farmworkers in the United States are working with documents that don't necessarily belong to them. They are not correctly documented. That creates a pretty unstable situation for the employer. Considering there is this shortage, have growers tried to outreach to unemployed Americans to take these jobs? Have. It would be really great if that would happen. The reality of the situation is, nativeborn Americans are not being raised to be farmworkers. So consequently, we have become defendant -- dependent on a foreign-born workforce to do the work of agriculture. People born in this country tend to look for work that is different than farmworker. We just have to make a decision as a society, do we want to continue to have locally grown produce in a place like California -- or more specifically a place like San Diego, knowing we need a workforce that is foreign-born to make those farms prosper? What are San Diego farmers doing to make up for the shortage of farmworkers? The first thing that comes to mind, let's mechanize. The fruits and vegetables that we grow in San Diego are what we call -- we grow them for the fresh market. We grow avocados and oranges. Avocados for quality -- guacamole oranges for orange juice. We grow to -- mechanization lent itself to processed foods. If you think about tomatoes got the tomatoes were harvested by machine. We don't grow those kinds of things here. Farmers here have to try to become more efficient and get done more with less. It is really the word on the street. Are any farmers actually changing to crops that can be harvested more easily by machines? That would be the logical conclusion to reach. But again, if you look at the typography of San Diego country -- County, mechanized farming is used on large parcels of land. Are farmers aren't there. Flat parcels of land have homes on them. Are farmers tend to be on hilly terrain and it just doesn't lend itself. Presses crops that lend themselves to mechanization, goes to the process market and you get a lot less money for those as opposed to the fresh market. And with our cost of water and cost of land, we can't afford to do that. You said most Americans are just not raised to work as a farmworker to be picking these crops. With there be any more motivation is perhaps the salaries were dramatically increased? Would that be even economically feasible for the farmers? There is some margin there. Some more -- farmers have attempted to do that to see if they can attract more people. With very mixed results. They do get some folks that were maybe born here and they don't lessen the job very long. In a world market, there is nothing we grow here that doesn't compete with something grown somewhere else in the world. So, we can only raise wages to a point. We get to that point where we are no longer competitive in the marketplace. That can only get so much done. With any of the immigration reform measures that are stalled in Congress address the issue of the status of farmworkers and having people be able to be documented and come across the border and work? Yes and that is the frustrating part of this. California produces the majority of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States. If we can come up with a quantified number of the number of workers needed, and it create a program that lets these people move freely back and forth across the border and view well documented. Prove they are not lawbreakers. Prove they have paid their taxes. Find an English class. Maybe pays them penalty for working into those documents that didn't belong to them. We would know where they are and who they are. I think from a national security point that would work. Is the kind proposals we think are reasonable. There is distant no appetite in Washington DC for immigration reform right now. As I said earlier, the ready we are hearing in the political campaign stashed them want change anytime soon. Eric Larsen isn't there an agricultural visa program that farmers could use? Or is it a program called a H2O program. Sandy Eggo is a -- San Diego is a very unique place. We haven't more than farmers that any county in the United States. If you want to use the H2A. You have to provide meals and those workers from literally 24 hours a day and you are responsible for them and a tremendous amount of paperwork. For seasonal small farmers it doesn't apply here at all. Tran -- Eric Larsen, I know your expertise is in San Diego County . Is the shortage of farmworkers affecting agricultural across the US? Absolutely. We see from the lens of California, but you can go to any region of the country where they do a lot of hand lever -- labor. It is really a mechanized industry. You get into Florida, Georgia, anyone else doing specialty -- fruits and vegetables for the table. In the San Diego Union Tribune -- it made the illusion that California farmers are actually relocating to Mexico to be able to avail themselves of the adequate number of farmworkers. Is that actually happening? That actually happens. Farmers will have farms here but also have farms in Mexico. That workforce is forlorn. We need to make up choice. Do we want them to work on the farms here and produce local products? Or do you want them to work on the farms in the country of their birth? At this point, politically in the United States -- we want them to produce those fruits and vegetables in the country of their birth. We run the risk right now as a nation to become more dependent on foreign grown produce. Riddick say that all this talk about farmworkers shortages is just a ruse to push immigration reform. And have consumers seen any evidence that farmers are having a hard time harvesting their crops? As a consumer, you probably don't see it. As consumers were not saying a lot from the drought because -- even though 500,000 acres of farmland have gone fallow and we lost 10,000 acres avocados in San Diego. At the world marketplace. As Americans, we were outbidding out by folks in other parts of the country and will bring our produce from other parts of the world where everyone to buy them. We will. If there's any Leica production in the United States, it is still pretty quickly. Giant -- China is in that game as well. Part of that too is what you bought up on this program we taught before. How innovative are San Diego growers are in trying to get these -- use less water and producing crops with your farmworkers. Sometimes it's amazing isn't it? Yes. I have to take my hat off to those folks every single day. Even if we can get over the high price of land, we look at the water and labor situation, they are still figuring it out. We still produce $1.8 billion of agricultural products a year. The them ploy 12 to 15,000 people. They are really resilient bunch. I take my hat off to them. He made the point that if we want to be dependent on foreign countries for growing our fruits and vegetables and the crops we produce here in California, that seems to be the way it is going. But if we -- this also has an economic impact. It's not just let's say a border security or a food security kind of thing. In San Diego County -- if we don't have enough people to harvest what are growers grow, it hurts our economy. It obsolete as. The farm production in this county brings about $5 billion to the economy each year. People need to realize also, we are really lucky. We live in an urban eyes County that also is one of the leading agricultural counties in the United States. You don't find that combination in very many places. We don't want to risk that. To lose that. We have 40+ farmers markets. We can go to our local stores and buy local produce. It's nice to be able to buy local. Per the character of San Diego County is the farmers we have. I think they're worth protecting. I think part of that protection is going to be figuring out this labor situation. It sounds to me from what you are saying, probably organizations like the United Farm workers would be behind the kind of legislation that you were talking about. That Washington doesn't seem to be very interested in at this time. I really don't know the United farmworkers position on that. I think most mute -- reasonable Americans would recognize the fact that we do need farmworkers to harvest and plant are crops. Most people would agree. It's the political rhetoric we can get around. The farmworkers and farm community is unfortunately caught up in that. I have been speaking with Eric Larsen . Thank you very much. Thank you Maureen.

A shortage of workers in California is causing problems for farmers in the state.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported farmers have switched their crops from those that need to be hand-picked to machine-harvested because there are fewer people to work the land. Some have moved operations to Mexico, where farmworkers are easier to find.

The number of full-time farmworkers in the United States has decreased by 20 percent between 2002 and 2014, according to a report from the Partnership For A New American Economy.


Eric Larsen, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said the problem is due to the lack of immigration reform.

The number of potential new workers immigrating to the U.S. dropped by 75 percent because of tightened security at the borders, Larsen said.

“There used to be a more generous or easier-to-use system for people to come over,” Larsen told KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday. “We have not had any kind of extensive immigration reform since the Reagan (administration). These folks are aging out of the workplace and there’s no one to replace them.”

And, it’s been difficult for farms to find workers in the U.S.

“The reality of the situation is native-born Americans are not being raised to be farmworkers,” Larsen said. “People born in this country tend to look for work that’s different.”


Larsen said farmworkers need to be able to come in and out of the U.S. freely to grow crops — especially in California, a state that produces a significant portion of the nation's fruits and vegetables.

“It’s a growing problem,” Larsen said. “It’s getting to be a very serious problem. There is just no appetite for immigration reform right now.”