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Farmers worry about securing workers for summer harvest

Farmers worry about securing workers for summer harvest

Cherries are starting to blush red in the state's warm southern reaches, but farmers are eyeing the first big summer crop with concern, unsure if they'll have enough hands for the harvest.
In recent years, growers in America's most bountiful farmland have watched tighter border enforcement and competition from the booming construction industry threaten their labor supply.
The building bubble has burst, but will laborers come back to lower-paying, backbreaking jobs in the fields? Growers are doubtful.
"We're hoping they'll show up," said Bruce Fry, whose Bing cherries near Lodi are starting to turn from straw yellow to the first pale shades of red.
His family has worked the land since 1855, and seasonal workers have always returned for the harvest in mid-May after the long growing period when they're not needed. Fry believes he might attract enough workers, but the number of people who come by looking for jobs is dwindling. "We're taking a leap of faith," he said.
California harvests about half the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables _ a massive undertaking that requires about 225,000 workers year-round _ double that during the peak summer season. More than half are immigrants who cross the Mexican border illegally and travel from field to field picking some 400 different crops that each ripen at different times.
Last year, that seasonal migration was marked by spot worker shortages, and some fruit was left to rot in the fields.
President George W. Bush's plan to secure the border relies on raising the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents from about 12,000 to 18,000 by the end of 2008, which would further limit the number of immigrant workers who can reach the farm jobs waiting for them.
The labor pool has been further diminished by the exploding Central Valley real estate market of recent years. Former farm fields have sprouted subdivisions, and tiny rural hamlets have transformed into sprawling suburbs.
But the demand for new homes cooled following a boom in foreclosures in the state's rural heartland brought on partly by the collapse of mortgage lending to homeowners with weak credit. That fueled speculation that former field hands would gravitate back to the farm.
But Wenceslau Covarubias, who doubled his salary to $15 (euro11) when he left the fields three years ago to help build homes, isn't going back.
"You can't go backward in life," he said. "In construction, I can learn more, I can keep going up."
He traded his aging Honda for a new Ford Explorer, learned to lay cement for home foundations and do detailed tilework. These are skills he's proud of.
Although the construction slowdown is sinking in _ work has been stop and go for a month in Shaver Lake, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills where he's been working _ Covarubias said he'll hold out for that kind of work.
"I'm sure some people will go back to (agriculture), but I think that'll be the exception, not the rule," said Phil Martin, a University of California, Davis labor economist.
Farmers realize they can't match the wages and stability that led immigrants to take 60 percent of the 1 million construction jobs created during the 2004-2006 building boom, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by the Pew Hispanic Center.
"You get used to a certain lifestyle, a certain pay scale, and it's difficult to go back," said Henry Vega, of Ventura County, a labor contractor who grows 65 acres (26.3 hectares) of strawberries and avocados and manages another 1,000 acres (405 hectares). "You're hot and dirty in the fields."
So far this year, there's been no measurable national shortage of farmworkers, said Phil Martin, a University of California, Davis labor economist. But growers working winter crops like strawberries said they're already feeling the pinch.
One of Vega's strawberry plots, normally harvested by 240 workers, is being picked by 160. That shortfall is forcing him to harvest more slowly. This means picking berries that are too ripe to be sold fresh. The fruit can be canned or juiced _ but both are less profitable options.
"I've been in this business for 25 years, and it's getting worse every year," he said. "We're just up against a real tough situation. There's a lot of production and just not enough workers."
Aware of the relentless demand for workers in California's fields, farmers like Vega are keeping one eye on their crops and one on Capitol Hill, where in the next few months President Bush and Congress will discuss immigration proposals that could hinder or help their plight.
A group of 25 California farmers _ fruit and vegetable growers, nursery owners, dairymen _ went to Washington two weeks ago to lobby for immigration reform that would allow them to bring temporary workers from Mexico legally.
Many of California's crops, such as Vega's strawberries and Fry's cherries, are labor intensive and have to be hand-harvested. The future of the industry depends on having a reliable source of workers, said Jack King, charged with national affairs for the California Farm Bureau.
"The problem's not going away," he said. "We need to think of some long-term solutions."


Updated : 2021-06-17 11:35 GMT+08:00