Regional agriculture businesses have dealt with challenges from thrips, psyllid, and water shortages for decades, but the biggest test to the industry’s future may be a present and looming labor shortage.
Agri-business leaders in California and throughout the country have been sounding the alarm for years, that unless and until a new comprehensive immigration agreement can be reached by U.S legislators, growers may soon be forced to plow under their groves and fields, not because of pests and water shortages, but for a lack of skilled laborers.
California, some in the industry say, may soon become like Georgia, where tougher state immigration laws have forced immigrant workers – especially skilled pickers – to flee, leaving crops rotting on the ground.
“We are on the brink of a very serious crisis in this area, in the state and in the country as a whole,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the Escondido-based San Diego Farm Bureau.
“The immigration problem that we have in this country needs to be addressed very soon or the rest of the country is going to look a lot like Georgia, where growers have been put out of production and are just turning-up their fields.”
Larson blames a lack of action – specifically by Congress – for the current shortage of workers in the county.
“We all understand the national security concerns that must be addressed by our government – we’re completely supportive of those measures. But there is a way to maintain our security, and still allow the immigration of workers into this country. Our legislators just need to get together and work this thing out.”
Writing in the California Avocado Commission’s Spring 2012 newsletter, Ken Melban, the CAC Issues Management director, opined “the reality is that for decades the federal government has turned a blind-eye to undocumented immigrants, many of whom provide skilled labor for agriculture. To suggest that imposing new legislation in one fell-swoop will instantly correct this situation is both illogical and impractical. Some type of guest-worker program must be included that will allow the on-going utilization of this important workforce,” Melban wrote.
Even U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak is concerned about the labor immigrant issue, wrote Melban.
“We do not have the workforce to get the job done and everyone admits it is not functioning. We should be fixing it, and fixing it now,” Melban wrote of Vilsak’s comments on the issue.
Locally, grove management companies and packing houses have yet to feel the labor shortage pinch, thanks in large part to the legal, well-trained staffs they already employ. But as their current employees age and retire, a new group of workers could be difficult to find.
“Right now, we’re in good shape, but that could change if the government doesn’t get its act together,” said Jon Martin, general manager of East Brothers Grove Service.
“All of our staff is working here legally – that’s the only way we’ll have it here. Most of the people at this company have been here 20 years or more, so they’re all trained in how to do their jobs. When they retire or leave, we might have trouble replacing them because good, trained people are hard to find.”
Martin suggests lawmakers find a solution quickly or face a greater unemployment problem.
“If the government wants to keep our businesses and our country thriving, they need to fix the immigration problem and they need to do it soon. If they don’t, we may all be looking for work.”
Reuben Hofshi of Del Rey Avocado, a Fallbrook packing house, echoed Martin concerns. Hofshi says most of his employees have at least 20 years of experience and replacing them will be difficult if current immigration laws aren’t changed.
“We are very fortunate that we have people working here that have been with us for a long time,” Hofshi said.
“In the future, I don’t know how we might find their replacements. The immigration laws and all the regulations have to change. It’s just getting ridiculous. The government agencies just need to get together and decide what the law is going to be.
Part of the problem is that one group from the government wants to do it one way, and another wants to do it a different way. I don’t think the government really knows what it wants to do right now. Once they figure it out, then we won’t have the problems we’re having now.”
Larson said if the immigrant issue isn’t resolved quickly on behalf of growers, other industries will soon feel the effect of a depleted workforce.
“Those agriculture workers are vital to our entire economy – without them we’re going to be faced with crops rotting in the fields and farmers forced to go out of business,” Larson said.
“It may be hard for some people to understand, but this problem effects more than just the agriculture industry. There is a huge trickle-down effect to this crisis.”