Friday, May 19, 2017

Ag labor shortage looks more severe in California this year

This year's agricultural labor shortage in California is shaping up to be more severe than previous years, industry representatives told me this week.

While the Golden State has yet to enter its peak season for labor, growers already report as much as a 20 percent to 30 percent shortage of workers. In the central San Joaquin Valley, that number is closer to 40 percent.

"I'm telling folks it's looking like the tightest it's been in five or 10 years, at least in this area," said Ryan Jacobsen, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. "We're hearing some reports this early on, which is not typical.

"We're hearing early indications that some folks … are only seeing 60 percent of what they would consider to be an adequate labor force," he said. "That's substantially down."

Such shortages have been a "chronic concern" in recent years but have received significantly more attention this year because of President Donald Trump's immigration policies, noted Dave Kranz, a California Farm Bureau Federation spokesman.

In an email, Kranz writes:
The long-term, chronic shortage of employees can be traced to a number of factors, including increased border security dating back to Sept. 11, 2001; economic improvements in Mexico that have compelled fewer people to leave the country in search of work; the aging of the migrant employee population in Mexico and elsewhere; and similar economic, educational and demographic factors.

We’ve seen farmers respond to the long-term shortages in a variety of ways, including increased wages, greater use of the existing H-2A agricultural guestworker program offered by the federal government, and continued advocacy on behalf of an improved immigration system that allows people to enter the U.S. legally to take on-farm jobs. In some cases, farmers have switched crops in favor of crops that require less manpower and/or have looked for ways to mechanize additional harvest and other on-farm work. The push toward mechanization is propelled not only by employee shortages but by recent California laws that will ratchet up the minimum wage and expand agricultural overtime pay.

As the 2017 harvest season picks up, we’ll have a better idea of how farmers will do in coping with the shortage. Peak agricultural employment typically occurs in late summer/early autumn, when harvests of a number of crops overlap in Central and Northern California. Planting and development of a number of crops was delayed this spring by the aftermath of the rainy winter; as the year goes on, we’ll see how that affects harvest timing, which can either worsen or lessen the ongoing problems with employee availability.
My inquiries were part of a comprehensive project I'm doing with Capital Press reporters from Washington, Oregon and Idaho on farm labor availability in the West. Look for our centerpiece story in next week's issue and at CapitalPress.com.

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