Slim Pickings in California

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Grower Richard Garabedian stands in his grape field in Fowler, Calif.

California's raisin grapes are withering on the vine. In the Central San Joaquin Valley, source of nearly all the raisins sold in the United States, 30% of the season's grapes are still waiting to be picked. The reason, growers say, is an unprecedented shortage of field laborers. A typical six-week harvest requires more than 50,000 workers; this season, raisin farmers are short by 40,000 and stand to lose as much as 60% of their annual $500 million production.

It's a "pending disaster" says Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, which represents 3,000 farmers that grow, pack, and ship half of the nation's fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts. Already, he says, California's Central San Joaquin Valley is missing about 70,000 of the workers it needs. Growers worry that the lack of manpower will next hit the $1 billion winter lettuce crop in the border region between California's Imperial Valley and the Yuma Valley in Arizona.

The nationwide housing boom is responsible for much of the worker shortage. Field workers, mostly undocumented immigrants from Mexico, are increasingly ditching the minimum-wage, back-breaking temporary work offered in agriculture for more lucrative construction jobs, which pay from $11 to $15 an hour. An estimated 40% of the region's illegal agricultural workers have already migrated to the construction industry. The growers insist that their margins on produce are too small to offer higher wages, a claim that unions are challenging.

But wage competition isn't the only culprit. The United Farm Workers, a 27,000-member union in California, says workers are simply looking for better working conditions; this summer several California farm workers died from heat-related illness. A crackdown on illegal immigration by U.S. Border Patrol and vigilantes called "Minutemen" is also choking the supply of new workers.

Whatever the cause, Nassif, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, is using the crisis to lobby for an emergency waiver that would allow undocumented immigrants to work during the current season. (Congress won't begin to look at any legislative remedies until later this fall, too late for this year's harvest.) "The President, the Administration, and the U.S. Congress have the ability to fix this," Nassif says. "They just have to believe that there is a pending crisis."

Critics have accused the big growers, like those in Nassif's organization, of exaggerating worker shortages to prevent tougher enforcement of immigration laws. But Manuel Cunha, Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, Calif., whose organization represents 1,000 small farmers, says this year's shortage is real, and likely to affect much more than the Central San Joaquin Valley. Winter lettuce, broccoli, and other crops could be next, then the large-scale agricultural producers in Texas and Florida, not to mention hotels, slaughterhouses and restaurants. "Businesses across the country depend on unauthorized foreign labor," Cunha says. "Congress must develop good immigration policies, now rather than later."