Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Drought of Farm Labor

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Drought of Farm Labor

Article excerpt

Imperial Valley lettuce farmer Jack Vessey says it's the worst in his lifetime. Farther north in California's Central Valley, orange grower Manuel Cunha calls it the most constrained since before World War II. Coastal tomato grower Luwanna Holmstrom constantly worries about a repeat of two years ago, when she had to plow under $2.5 million in tomatoes left unpicked.

California and Arizona farmers - producers of half the nation's citrus and 90 percent of its vegetables and nuts - are struggling with an acute labor shortage. The situation, worsened by crackdowns on illegal immigration since 9/11, also extends to other states and is no longer just a matter of possible price increases on lettuce, oranges, or almonds, farmers say. Rather, it is a turning point in the nation's ability to produce its own food - and possibly the loss of major parts of its agriculture industry.

"We are trying to sound the alarm without being alarmist, but the situation has become extremely serious," says Tim Chelling of the Western Growers Association, whose members grow, pack, and ship half America's produce. "We are now talking of losing the production of key commodities to foreign competition. America's produce industry is facing a crisis."

Although the shortage was worsening before 9/11, it's now extreme, Mr. Chelling and the three California farmers say. Without an emergency guest-worker program, they will be dramatically short of the minimum number of workers needed to harvest the current crop. Without long-term immigration reform that acknowledges America's reliance on foreign workers, farmers will not be able to make ends meet, they say.

Mr. Cunha, for example, says Central Valley raisin growers need 50,500 pickers and have only 15,000. In the last harvest, $150 million to $300 million in grapes were ruined because they could not be picked and laid out to dry before the period of necessary seasonal sunlight passed. This year predictions are worse.

Mr. Vessey began harvesting romaine, iceberg, and red-leaf lettuce Tuesday. He was 200 workers short. "I lost $250,000 because of this problem last year," he says. "This year I am concerned I could go under completely. If I miss making my contracts with some of the big stores, they could look to China, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere, and even if I recover my labor later, it may be too late."

Tightened border

Even before 9/11, other industries from construction to hotels, restaurants, and domestic services were luring workers away from the difficult and temporary work of harvesting. Increased border enforcement, which began a decade ago but has been ratcheted up since 2001, has further reduced the labor pool. In fact, by tripling the border patrol in recent years, the back-and-forth traffic of illegals has become so problematic that instead of returning to Mexico, many have moved farther into America's interior in search of full-time work - leaving seasonal agriculture work behind. …

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