In Arizona it’s about 60 days before the harvest season, and Kevin Rogers, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau and a farmer himself, is worried. “It’s devastating when your crops are ready to go and there’s no one there to pick it.”
Across the US, farmers have been complaining about labor shortages caused by a lack of migrant workers. In California, farmers are reporting a 20 percent drop in the labor force because of increased border patrols and a guest worker program that is not keeping up with the demand for farm labor.
California is a large agricultural state, and everything from fruits and nuts, to wine grapes and berries are being left to rot on vines and trees. In Washington state, apples are left unpicked, part of an estimated 10 percent of the state’s crops that have been abandoned, a result of what Time called “a complex web of local and state anti-immigration laws.”
To highlight the problem ImmigrationWorks USA, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit, held a conference in the border town of Yuma, Arizona last Thursday, the same week that Arizona police started enforcing the controversial show-me-your-papers provision of the state immigration law known as SB 1070.
Rogers says this recent development hasn’t yet led to a perceptible decrease in the agricultural workforce this season. He says many undocumented immigrants already left the state in 2010 “when Arizona passed the (SB) 1070 legislation. Within 30 to 60 days, it happened pretty quick,” he said, adding that this was part of the reason things were tight in the labor market last year, and farmers “scrambled to do the thinning” this year.
The conference, titled “A New Front Door: Designing an Agricultural Temporary Worker Program,” included a call for visa reform for agricultural workers, and unity among farmers and farm bureaus from across the country. These reforms are more about getting workers into the U.S, rather than enforcement that makes it difficult for workers to stay in the country.
Rogers noted that among the many changes farmers would like to see is a system to allow immigrant workers in border towns like Yuma—as well as communities in Texas and California—to commute to the U.S, then return to their homes in Mexico at the end of the day. Beyond the immediate border region, Rogers says workers need “the freedom to go back and forth and be portable,” meaning they can move from one farm to the next as the harvest demands.
Labor shortages seem counterintuitive considering the persistently high rates of unemployment across the nation. In Arizona, the 8.3 percent unemployment rate is slightly higher than the national average. California’s unemployment rate is 10.6 percent.
Rogers says part of the disconnect between high rates of joblessness and the farm labor shortage is thinking of farm work as unskilled labor that any unemployed person can pick up and do.
He says farm work requires “no degree, but the skill set is very high.” Anything from picking lettuce, which involves using a sharp knife all day, to driving tractors and other heavy machinery, requires training and experience. “We just don’t have that in the native workforce—not at any price.”
He’s has heard of growers trying to attract American workers by offering health insurance and 401(k) contributions to those who work the whole season. But, he says, those efforts were not successful.
Asked about the chance of agricultural visa reforms passing, Rogers says he doesn’t expect it in the next twelve months, but he’s optimistic. He says “it’s important that the country get over this hurdle…it’s imperative that we get there.”