Field workers thin a new lettuce crop in Watsonville recently.
(Photo by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)
WATSONVILLE — Across the state, farmers are reporting labor shortages as the season’s first harvest gets into full swing. In the Pajaro Valley, many local growers who are harvesting now report the same alarming trend.
Dick Peixoto, owner of Lakeside Organic Gardens, said his operation is definitely running short this year and is concerned that conditions will get worse.
Peixoto said the labor situation was bad three years ago, but the last two years were better. This year has been worse, and he’s noticed that fewer people are coming up from Mexico and those who worked in the fields last year are not coming back. The shortage has the potential to affect all growers, he said.
“We are heading for a train wreck,” he said.
To make up for the shortfall, Lakeside Organics is accepting an increasing number of part-time workers and bringing in people from King City and further afield, Peixoto said. Workers make up for the travel by being able to put in a full day’s work and receive a full day’s pay.
Sun Valley Farms Owner Rogelio Ponce has also noticed a labor shortage.
“We started harvesting strawberries three weeks ago, and though we are technically OK, we need more people,” Ponce said.
Despite a relative lack of rain this winter, the fields are awash with healthy, plump fruit.
Ponce said workers are commuting up from Santa Maria and Oxnard for the strawberry harvest, but once the blackberry and blueberry harvest begins, Sun Valley will have fewer people to work in strawberries.
“We would like to fill our crews in the next few weeks — we have 90 people now, but we would like 130,” he said.
Local berry grower J.J. Scurich said he has not directly experienced a shortage, but he has heard talk and noticed more signs up in neighbors’ fields, which has made their operation “a little bit nervous.”
“We are starting to hire and will know better in two weeks’ time,” Scurich said.
A cold winter has put off his raspberry and blackberry crops by a couple weeks and a lot of people are anxious to start working, Scurich adds.
“We have not experienced (a shortage) personally,” said John E. Eiskamp, owner of J.E. Farms. Eiskamp is currently rehiring former workers in preparation for their strawberry harvest and will know better in a few weeks where they stand in regard to staffing levels.
Eiskamp also serves as an officer on the Santa Cruz Farm Bureau board of directors and explains that there is a lot of debate and dialogue over why it is so difficult for growers to find enough workers.
“Possible reasons for shortages (include) the economy recovering and workers who came over from the construction field are returning to construction,” he said.
Eiskamp also acknowledges that a portion of the agricultural labor force is undocumented.
“This is why the farm bureau lobbies for a comprehensive immigration reform package that facilitates our need for seasonal labor and those looking to work in these industries,” Eiskamp said.
Changes in immigration are also playing a part in the labor shortage, reports suggest. According to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, “The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill.”
The report goes on to say that “after four decades that brought 12 million current immigrants — more than half of whom came illegally — the net migration flow from Mexico to the U.S. has stopped and may have reversed. The standstill appears to result from the weakened U.S. job market, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, and changing economic and demographic conditions in Mexico.”
For Ponce, the lack of workers represents an opportunity to take a leadership role in attracting and retaining a loyal workforce.
“We have to be proactive and offer the best work environment for our employees,” he said. For the complete article see the 05-17-2012 issue.
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