Farmers in California often struggle to find enough workers to harvest fields bursting with crops. Now the situation is growing dire as crackdowns on immigrants are leaving tons of food to rot in fields.
Last year some $13 million in strawberries, broccoli, lettuces and other crops were plowed under in Santa Barbara County alone for lack of pickers, the Santa Barbara Independent reports, citing the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. The situation this year is expected to be far worse. Five years ago the loss was just $4.4 million, the Independent says.
Arrests of undocumented immigrants have surged in the first few months of President Donald Trump’s administration, with arrests of immigrants without criminal records more than doubling nationwide over the beginning of 2016, according to The Washington Post. To make matters worse, even before the crackdown, the number of agricultural workers in California — overwhelmingly Mexican — had decreased as Mexico’s economy improved, keeping more workers at home.
At the same time, younger immigrants are less likely than their parents to work in the fields: Better-educated young people find better jobs. Those forced to take lower-paid work prefer to take jobs in hotels and restaurants because they’re less physically demanding.
The empty slots don’t translate into more jobs for Americans because Americans don’t want them, according to farmers, even though farmworker pay in many areas is well above minimum wage, paying close to $30,000 in certain areas for full-time work, reports the Los Angeles Times. But the labor is back-breaking, involves long hours, and is seasonal, leaving stretches of time with no pay for many workers.
U.S. workers filled just 2 percent of tracked farm jobs advertised in 1996, according to a report by the Labor Department, and the statistic is believed to be similar today. One vineyard owner complained that every American he has ever hired to work in the fields quit by lunch the first day.
Stockton vineyard owner Jeff Klein, 35, last year pulled up 113,000 chardonnay grapevines because he couldn’t compete with better wages paid by more lucrative Napa vineyards. Trump-era deportations are “killing our labor force,” he told the LA Times. “There’s not enough guys, and everybody is fighting for everybody else’s guys.”
Some farmers are hoping to increase the number of laborers with foreign guest workers on H-2 visas. It’s a program the Trump family has relied on for the vineyard at Trump winery. Trump Vineyard Estates filed its latest request for visas for foreign farm workers at its Virginia winery in February — for 23 laborers at $11.27 an hour through October this year. In December, Trump Vineyard Estates also filed an application with the Department of Labor seeking six similar visas in paperwork submitted just days after Trump urged an Indiana company not to ship American jobs to Mexico.
Ironically, many California farmers desperate for labor have been forced to mechanize their operations as much as possible to compensate for a shortage of workers.