COACHELLA, Calif. – On a recent sunny morning, Isidro Fuentes spent several hours thinning out two-week-old rows of romaine lettuce.
In years past, that job would have been done by 30 people. But today Fuentes, 56, sits alone atop a tractor with a specialized mechanical attachment that handles the entire operation.
“This is the future,” he says.
The future, in fact, has many farmers nervous. The company Fuentes works for provides labor to Ocean Mist Farms, which has begun turning to automation because farm workers are both in short supply and increasingly costly.
“There’s nothing better than a hand-picked crop,” says Jeff Percy, vice president of southern production for Castroville-based Ocean Mist, the country’s largest grower of fresh artichokes.
“But there’s the minimum wage, the cost,” he says. “The bottom line is, we have to compete.”
California farmers, anchors of a $50 billion industry that represents 13 percent of the nation’s agricultural value and a critical source of its produce and milk, are facing an unprecedented squeeze on their livelihoods that could have repercussions in households from coast to coast.
Beyond a decade-in-the-making labor shortage, spurred in part by a lack of replacements for an aging work force, California’s newly enacted overtime pay law and the Trump administration’s tense rhetoric over immigration have ratcheted up concern among both farmers and those they rely on to work the land.
Farm workers who once crossed the Mexican border routinely for seasonal work in el norte now express deep fears about making the trip, effectively cutting off the supply of labor south of the border.
Meanwhile farmers, increasingly faced with upwards of a 20 percent shortfall in field staffing, often are forced to leave lucrative crops to die on the vine or sell high-priced goods such as strawberries to jam manufacturers at a reduced rate.
Some farms, such as Ocean Mist, are hoping to turn the financial tide by relying on robots and mechanization. Others have elected to grapple with cumbersome H-2A visa program paperwork to temporarily import an international labor force.
The most blunt of agriculture veterans simply say that their futures may involve shifting to less labor-intensive crops, perhaps operating solely out of Mexico-based operations or possibly shuttering their businesses altogether.
“Because we have little control over market pricing, we’ll be forced to look at other options,” says Steve Maddox, managing partner of Maddox Farms in Riverside County just east of Los Angeles, which has 3,000 dairy cows. They also grow almonds and grapes.
Experts warn that any of those avenues could eventually lead to higher prices in grocery stores nationally.
“If you want your food grown in the U.S., we need to find a way to have a legal and stable labor supply for farmers,” says Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
The bureau’s most recent survey of state farmers, conducted in 2017, showed that 55 percent of respondents said they had experienced labor shortages, and a third were delaying harvesting, eliminating crops and neglecting critical tasks such as pruning as a result.
President Donald Trump recently suggested help was on the way, leaning on his administration’s past commitment to streamline the current visa process.
“You need these people,” Trump told a gathering of the American Farm Bureau Federation in New Orleans on Jan. 15. “We’re going to make it easier.”
But so far, the H-2A visa program remains unchanged. Democratic lawmakers instead are focusing on creating a path to citizenship for farm workers who have made a commitment to the industry.
A recent Pew Research Center study estimates there are 11.3 million undocumented workers in the U.S., and more than half work on farms and are a critical source of labor for American farmers.
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On Jan. 17, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, introduced the Agricultural Worker Program Act, which would grant “blue card” status to immigrants who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days over the past two years. That card could lead to a residency permit within a few years.
The proposal is far from new and was previously floated by Feinstein and other Democratic lawmakers in 2017. Its inability to pass speaks to the contentious nature of this debate, with conservatives concerned about increased immigration while others feel a blue card is critical for farmers and a just reward for being an engine of the economy.
Although cautiously optimistic the new legislation could provide a respite for farmers looking to keep longtime workers from returning home permanently, Lofgren tells USA TODAY the possibility of citizenship causes “some right-wing talk show hosts to scream amnesty.”
But, she adds, “looking at it that way doesn’t help our country. There’s no line of people begging to pick crops. The pay is not bad, but people don’t want to do it. It’s very tough work.”
Will farmers pay overtime?
In California, farmers have indeed turned to boosting wages as a way of securing a steady labor force, offering a few dollars over the minimum wage of $11.
What’s more, a new state law that kicked in Jan. 1 requires farmers to pay overtime to anyone working more than 9.5 hours a day, down from 10 hours a day. In a few years, farm workers will make overtime after eight hours of work.
While that would seem to make this a prosperous time to work the fields, the reality isn’t as rosy, says Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers union, which took wing in 1965 under the leadership of Cesar Chavez.
Beyond the arduous and sometimes dangerous nature of the work, there is the fact that farmers have said they hope to avoid overtime to salvage their bottom line, and many field workers worry about being picked up by immigration officers.
“In the eyes of this administration, we’re killers, rapists and drug dealers, so I’m sure some people will think, ‘Oh, these workers aren’t worth paying more,’” says Romero. “But you want good food on your table? The people that can get it there are the farm workers.”
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Interviews in Spanish with a number of farm workers from Riverside and Ventura counties in Southern California paint a picture of an aging immigrant workforce that often spends hours hunched over crops in the hot sun.
While the money can be alluring, few of their peers in Mexico are willing to risk getting caught crossing the border, workers say.
Baltazar Aguirre, a longtime union organizer who first entered the U.S. in 1975, says he expects farms to find ways to limit overtime hours or perhaps play favorites with employees in determining who gets overtime pay.
Vegetable picker Guillermo Garcia has spent the last 19 years working the land in California. He is an undocumented worker and questions whether farm operators truly cannot pay overtime.
“If they can pay to get the visas (for Mexican temporary farm hands) and to bring them to the U.S. and house them, then they can pay us overtime,” he says.
But mostly Garcia hopes for sweeping immigration reforms that would allow him “to be legal, so I can visit my family in El Salvador again.”
‘Penciling out’ the costs
At the moment, California’s farmers aren’t counting on immigration reform to safeguard their operations, many of which have been in their families for generations.
So they are finding other ways to deal with a reality that could ultimately threaten their businesses.
“You’ll see different models for how farmers will pencil this out and divide the costs of operating,” says Carolyn O’Donnell of the California Strawberry Commission, which represents 315 growers.
“California is the leader in terms of farm safety, minimum wage, paid sick leave and now overtime for farm workers,” she says. “With each development, it puts farmers into problem solving mode. And yes, if they can convince (produce) wholesalers to accept a higher price for their goods, the price will be passed along to consumers.”
How high could prices go? While experts say labor costs can represent 30 percent or more of a farm’s operations, an uptick in payroll would hardly affect store prices.
“The answer is you’d barely notice the price difference,” says Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California-Davis.
But, Sumner adds, if some farmers hold out on overtime pay, others will be similarly inclined to avoid the up-charge to their business model.
That could lead farmers to try and circumvent the new law by perhaps sharing workers with a neighboring farm so no one goes over a 55-hour work week, or working with farm labor contractors who aren’t clear about how many hours their workers have already put in.
“This all could lead to funny business, and those are the worries,” he says.
Farm labor contractor Selma America Ochoa has no intention of running afoul of the law. But she does anticipate that her business will suffer under the new overtime pay directive, since she makes a percentage of each worker’s hourly wage.
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She has heard “across the board” from farmers that they plan to cut worker hours rather than pay overtime. As for whether workers will just look to add those hours at a different job, Ochoa isn’t so sure.
“Ag is so demanding,” she says. “It’s very hard labor, so it’s not so easy to come home and want to take another job.”
Quality down, prices up
For farmers who are grappling with the cost of labor, water and even climate change, the solution seems to be higher food prices – or go bust.
“Particularly the smaller farmers we represent, they say they could go out of business if things don’t change,” says Jerry Pearson, a farm-side labor attorney with Young and Wooldridge in Bakersfield.
Between young people not wanting to do farm work and issues with immigration, his clients are struggling for solutions, he says.
“So maybe first you’ll see a lesser grade of avocado or orange in the store, or you’ll go to Whole Foods and start paying even more. But if farmers are paying more for labor, then stores will pay more for produce and on down the line. It’s the way the world goes around,” Pearson says.
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For Ron Ratto of Ratto Brothers, a 100-year-old farming operation with 1,000 acres of land around Modesto in Northern California, labor is “the number one issue of our day.”
He predicts that some of the bigger farming operations will survive the current crisis, but smaller ones will not.
“People can’t know how difficult it is for farmers to produce crops and manage water and deal with labor and weather and regulations,” he says. “Ag has shifted out of the country because it can just get so complicated.”
Blaine Carian, a third-generation farmer who produces table grapes and citrus, says his operation has been facing competition from Mexican producers who have ramped up their stake in the same crop.
Carian is blunt about what he would do once the current overtime law requires payment after a 40-hour work week: switch crops.
“We’re going to convert to crops where we can get the job done in 40 hours,” he says, noting that agriculture long held an overtime exemption precisely because of the unpredictability of the weather and the crops. “We just know we can’t afford (to pay overtime), especially at harvest time.”
For some farmers, having a guaranteed work force is worth paying for. Dave Murray, a partner in strawberry growers Andrew and Williamson based in San Diego, says around 5 percent of his 5,000 employees are in the U.S. on an H-2A visa. For each employee, farmers can count on spending around $2,000 for fees, transportation and lodging.
Murray says the multinational nature of his company allows it to keep a constantly rotating pool of workers that shuttle between harvest seasons in Baja California, Mexico, and the Watsonville area near Monterey Bay in California.
“We realized quickly that the only thing more expensive than an H-2A visa holder is not having any labor at all,” he says. “That’s when we started looking at the H-2A as a way of giving some workers year-round work.”
Ryan Talley of Talley Farms came to the same conclusion two years ago, making annual trips down to Mexico to pitch workers on the prospects of a temporary job in the U.S.
Today, 50 of the farm’s 250 workers who harvest lemons, avocados and cilantro have H-2A visas.
“Our margins on the grower side keep getting cut, what with minimum wage going up and now the overtime after 9.5 hours,” he says. “Farmers will all tell you, it’s not really going to hurt us, it’s going to hurt the workers because instead of 10 people working 10 hours a day, 11 will work nine a day.”
Back in the fertile fields of Ocean Mist Farms, one man doing the work of 30 is perhaps the most stark example of how mechanized labor could be a boon for farmers and a disaster for farm workers.
Percy, the Ocean Mist vice president, says “to us, on the farms, people, our labor, all of our employees are our number one resource. We have no problem paying them more.”
But, he adds, the threat of lower priced produce from Arizona and Mexico makes the reality of delivering on that premium payment difficult.
That means he and other California farmers will continue to pencil things out, trying to balance the need to pay workers and make a profit with a desire to simply stay in business.
Farm workers, the people who do the back-breaking cultivation work that no one else seems to want to do, are caught in the middle, crushed between market forces and heated immigration rhetoric, with no easy solution in sight.
So the next time you stop to pick up a basket of blueberries or a head of lettuce, don’t take it – or its price – for granted, says Farm Bureau labor expert Little.
“The farm labor shortage is not just our problem,” he says. “If you want safe and wholesome and affordable food at home, we need to find a way to fix this.”
Follow @marcodellacava of USA TODAY and @rljourno of the Desert Sun on Twitter.