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California's Central Valley farmers struggle with worker shortage

Kevin Steward has spent more than a quarter-century in agriculture, much of that growing grapes for wineries. He's always been able to rely on seasonal workers to tend the vines and bring in the year's harvest.

But this year, workers are harder to come by.

"I could use 30 men," Steward said. "We'll get 'er done, but I can't find anybody."

Growers throughout the fertile Central Valley are wringing their hands as they struggle to find the manpower they need.

Anti-immigration laws and policies, an aging population, and even a raging drug war south of the border all are contributing to a slowdown in the pipeline of Mexican workers that for so long have fueled California's farm industry, experts say.

"We're just not seeing the number of people we (usually) see this time of year," said Bryan Little, director of farm labor affairs at the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Steward, president of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, said he has only a fraction of the 40 workers he depends on to tend the 1,000 acres of vineyards he manages in Amador and San Joaquin counties.

"I've never seen it this bad," he said, though he's heard that there are "a lot of good workers who are busy picking cherries."

But cherry growers say their labor situation is only marginally better.

Laborers available to harvest San Joaquin County's lucrative cherry crop are down as much as 30 percent, according to the county's farm bureau. At cherry grower Rutledge Farms in Woodbridge, near Lodi, 60 laborers are doing the work that 80 or 90 would in a typical year.

San Joaquin County is an agricultural powerhouse in California built on dairy, wine grapes, tree nuts and the sweet cherries being picked now. The county's sweet-cherry crop alone is valued at more than $185.5 million, according to the California Farm Bureau.

The cherry harvest is a quick one, just days long and very labor-intensive. Shakers and other machines are useless in gathering the delicate fruit. Only pickers need apply.

"I hope what we've seen is an aberration," Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau, said of the labor shortage.

California growers hope so, too. Early crops such as asparagus, blueberries and cherries are in, but soon will come more stone fruit, strawberries and the salad bowl crops – carrots, lettuce, mushrooms and peppers – all crops that need hands in the soil.

California Farm Bureau officials say that as many as 225,000 workers toil on the state's farmland, a number that typically grows to about 450,000 by the heavy harvest season in September.

Farm labor contractors saw warning signs as early as last year's grape harvest when a late season stretched the labor supply to the limit, said Guadalupe Sandoval, managing director of the Sacramento-based California Farm Labor Contractor Association.

"Things didn't ripen until late so everybody needed workers at the same time," Sandoval said. "There weren't enough crews out there. That was our canary in the coal mine."

Reasons for the brake on Mexican immigrant labor are many.

Prices asked by the "coyotes" who smuggle workers across the border continue to rise – as high as $7,500, Sandoval is told. And, he said, "There's no guarantee of getting across. The coyotes may take your money. Maybe your life, as well."

The narco-terrorism plaguing Mexico makes an already treacherous journey north even more perilous.

Jeff Passell, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., said surveys tracking the Mexican labor force "show a huge drop in the number of people setting out from Mexico. It's not surprising that that's having an effect on agriculture."

"There's a lot of factors feeding into this," Passell continued. "We're looking at a severely reduced demand for unauthorized immigrants, increased enforcement and a ramp-up in violence that makes it more dangerous to get to the border."

Mexico's demographics are changing, too, said Little, of the state Farm Bureau Federation.

Families are getting smaller and the population is aging, shrinking the number of workers crossing the border to follow the crops, Little said.

"That gigantic overlay of young people in the 1970s and 1980s – it just isn't there anymore," he said.

It's not clear if farm labor shortages will continue, or what can be done to change the situation. Lawmakers have battled for years about various immigration reform strategies, including the guest-worker programs favored by many in the agricultural industry.

But Chuck Dudley, president of the Yolo County Farm Bureau, said the implications for American food consumers are severe if shortages worsen.

"It boils down to the fact that if labor continues as it is now the ability to get a wide variety of food to table is somewhat in jeopardy," Dudley said. "If you don't get it planted, picked and packed, it won't get to the table."