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Labor Shortage And Other Risks Confront San Diego Farmers

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, is pictured at a grapefruit orchard in Escondido, March 19, 2015.
Roland Lizarondo
Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, is pictured at a grapefruit orchard in Escondido, March 19, 2015.
Labor Shortage And Other Risks Confront San Diego Farmers
Labor Shortage for San Diego County Farmers GUEST: Eric Larson, executive director, San Diego County Farm Bureau

Despite all the focus on immigrants crossing the U.S. Mexico border one aspect of that immigration has been overlooked and it poses a threat to San Diego agriculture. The recent San Diego County Farm Bureau report shows overall crop values rising for the second straight year and the county continuing its booming business in plants and flowers. But the question of who will harvest San Diego's crops in the years to come is becoming more pressing as new farm workers are getting harder to find. Joining me is Eric Larson executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. And Eric welcome back. Thank you for the invitation. Happy to be here. Before we get to the biggest challenge U.S. facing San Diego County farmers can you give us some facts and figures about agriculture in the county because I think people tend to forget how big an industry this is in San Diego. What's the total value of San Diego County crops. Well your timing's really good on the question because the county of San Diego just published their statistics for last year takes a while to gather them so they just came out for last year. The value of agriculture in San Diego County is just a touch under one point eight billion dollars. That's the value of the crops. But then we look at the spending the farmers and the employees do and it kind of ripples out in the economy is worth about four point seven billion dollars to the local economy. So most people have a freeway beach orientation. They don't see the farms in the back country. But it's an important part of our economy. How much growth did the industry say in this year's crop report. It wasn't much under 2 percent one point six percent I think is the actual number. But we're happy to see growth considering the price of water. The issue with Labor that I think we're going to talk about but in dollars the increase was twenty eight million dollars so it's not a small amount of money. New money coming into the economy. Record kinds of crops are the biggest money makers. Well if we look at ornamental crops that's the plants we use in our landscape. The plants we may put in our home are the cut flowers we use. That's by far. Number one it's just about 70 percent of the dollars. Not a large part of the acreage because it's high value on small acreage but it's about 70 percent of the value of everything we do. And then followed by the tree crops the fruit crops avocados oranges lemons grapefruits. Now San Diego used to produce a lot of citrus is that still the case. We still do quite a bit of citrus here. It's mostly in those areas where we have groundwater so such as the Sampa Squaw Valley the scandalous Ray Valley where water is not nearly as expensive. And so citrus still does very very well in those areas and are we still the avocado capital. I wish I could say we were but a couple of years ago we slid behind Ventura County and I'd like to get the crowd hope we could get the crown back some day but for now we've had the Lende at the Ventura County naturally driven by the price of water. We have very very expensive water here and it's proved to be a real challenge for avocado growers. And I just had another question about that continuing challenge. What are growers doing about that. Well unfortunately the heyday of avocado planting in our county was 20 30 years ago. A lot of those growers maybe in their 80s maybe early 90s. I talk to folks every day and they're older and so they really don't have an incentive to reinvest in their avocado groves. But those growers who are staying in the business are doing some pretty dramatic things with irrigation technology to make sure they use as little water as possible. There's another interesting thing that they're working on is called dentes planting where the old tradition was to plant 100 avocado trees per acre picked six to twelve thousand pounds of fruit. Now growers are planting up to 400 trees per acre and maybe picking as much as 25000 pounds of fruit per acre. So it's a way to overcome the cost of water is just planting the land denser adding more labor because you have to manage that many trees but nonetheless that appears to be one of the strategies that will keep growers in business here. Now despite the high cost of water you see a bigger problem on the horizon for the San Diego farm industry and that has to do with farm workers. What's the situation. Yeah that's a good comparison. So the water price is the water price County Water Authority has done a good job of solidifying our water supply came at a price and the water's high but at least it's wet and the growers can deal with that labor force continues to shrink and so we have a lot of people aging out. We haven't done a real immigration reform here in this country or dealt with guest workers since the mid 1980s so we have folks aging out of the industry and we've done nothing to replace that. The reality is farm workers are foreign born but we have no source of new workers. I understand that most of the farm workers that work here in San Diego live here year round. That's correct. We're a little bit different than other parts of the country. Her work is very seasonal so in the Midwest where they're growing corn soy things like that you is that seasonal harvest these and other parts of California where you're growing like say walnuts are pistachios at Seasonale but here are the things that we produce. Our workers get to work 12 months a year specially in the nursery business so it's it's really good employment. Why are there fewer new farm workers coming from Mexico to the U.S. for some reason. Eisinger I won't get too high on my soapbox here but the discussions have been stymied in Washington D.C. has become very partisan. You mentioned early on that agriculture labor has been kind of overlooked and we believe that's true. So in Washington the conversations are about Dokka they're about enforcement they're about building walls they're about amnesty. But farm workers are agricultural labor doesn't seem to rise to the level of discussion. And while that's happening we're actually having to make some very tough decisions about the future of agriculture in a place like California because the labor pool is shrinking so we really want Congress and the president to look at that have that recognition were important to the economy we've already discussed that and the fact that our workers come from foreign countries can't we create some kind of a guest worker program to allow folks to come here and do that work that needs to be done. I've been speaking with Eric Larson executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. Eric thank you. Thank you appreciate being here.

Farming is a risky business.

It's the eighth-most dangerous job for men in the U.S. It's an occupation where catastrophe lurks behind every rain cloud, drought in every relentless sunbeam and disease in every swarm of insects.

In San Diego County, the everyday risks are compounded by a labor shortage which is reaching acute proportions.


Most farm-workers in San Diego County are residents who don't follow crops from farm to farm. But these workers are aging out, said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, and he sees no appetite in Washington to address the problem with immigration reform or a guest-worker program.

The bureau's annual Crop Report, released in June, reveals another risk. Lack of water and its high cost have taken a toll on what used to be the area's largest and most famous crop: avocados. Its value dropped more than 10 percent in 2017, to $122 million.

Eric Larson talks about the value of San Diego County crops and what the risks to those crops are Tuesday on Midday Edition.