Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bruce Maiman: Just how do lawmakers like the family farmer?

Nick Ivicevich was frustrated. He had his best pear crop in 45 years, but like other Lakeport growers, his fruit rotted by the ton because he hadn’t the pickers to harvest them.

“I waited my whole lifetime for this,” he said. The night we spoke, he took his phone outside so I could hear the thud of fruit dropping from the sagging branches. He lost about 1.8 million pounds of pears.

That was 2006. Nick died two weeks ago at age 77, but seven years later the situation for growers is even worse. Nick’s daughter Pamela, who proudly took over the 122-acre orchard that’s been in the family since 1960, and every grower I spoke with blamed stepped-up border enforcement and Washington’s inability to craft a sensible, reality-based immigration-reform policy.

“These are labor-intensive crops, hand-harvested.” Pamela said. “We need a program that makes it easy for growers to hire people who know how to do this work without them worrying about how to get here to do it.”

A $45 billion industry last year, California’s 80,500 farms employ some 450,000 people at peak harvest. In 2006, growers estimated the state was short by 70,000 workers – roughly 14 percent. This year it was around 30 percent. The United Farm Workers of America estimates that each year, up to 15 percent of California’s farm labor force leaves agriculture permanently.

Converging trends conspire against growers. With tighter borders, many illegal immigrants haven’t returned to Mexico for years. Remaining here year-round, they gravitate toward more stable occupations like construction and landscaping, and stay there.

Children of farmworkers who arrived decades ago have little interest in field work, leaving much of the vital labor to aging elders.

“That’s what happened here,” Pamela Ivicevich said. “Ramon (Camarena) has been with the farm for decades. His two boys, both mechanics – one in Phoenix, one in Long Beach – won’t be following in their father’s footsteps. He made sure that wouldn’t happen.”

Sounds like the typical immigrant story of Europeans who migrated here 100 years ago.

“It’s exactly the same,” said Jennifer Euwer, a pear grower in Oregon’s Hood River Valley, which suffered worker shortages again amidst a near-record crop this year. “Immigrants legalized during the Reagan administration, their kids were born here and moved on to bigger and better.

“That’s why we’ve relied on a steady influx of newcomers from Mexico," she said. “But they’re harder to come by, and Americans won’t do that work.”

Why not?

“Because it’s too hard,” said Lupe Sandoval, executive director for the California Farm Labor Contractor Association. “They’re welcome to it, but they won’t. And when they try, they can’t.”

Case in point: In 2010, with unemployment in California at 12.5 percent, attempts to hire U.S. citizens failed dismally, an Associated Press investigation found. First, farmers here advertised in four states for 1,160 harvesting jobs across California, U.S. citizens only. Just 233 people applied.

Then, the UFW invited unemployed Americans to apply online for farming jobs. After 3 million Web hits and 8,600 applications, only seven pursued training and got hired. They all quit.

Some say farmers should pay higher wages, a curious argument given the apoplexy of those opposed to California recently raising its minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016. Yet pear farmers typically pay a piecework rate that amounts to more than $22 an hour – $176 for an eight-hour day. Many crops pay more, and housing is often provided, eliminating a critical living expense for workers. Any takers?

Few growers have faith in the current H-2A guest-worker program, which requires employers to prove they tried to find American workers and to apply well in advance for foreign workers for fixed time periods. That’s tricky given Mother Nature’s capriciousness. Picking crews often arrive late and shorthanded. Crops go unpicked.

Farmers are adapting. “I sold part of my orchard because of labor shortages,” says Felipe Ternero, who grows olives on 350 acres in Orland. “A lot more people are growing crops like almonds and walnuts. They’re machine-harvested and require fewer workers.”

You can’t do that with more delicate fruits and veggies.

Ultimately, “farmers are planting less, which means less money for them, less money for the state, more expensive food for consumers.” said Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Pear Advisory Board. “Meanwhile, we keep telling everybody to eat fruits and vegetables.”

The bipartisan immigration bill already approved by the Senate provides an effective mechanism for migrants to come in, do the work and go home, but it has languished in the Republican House. There’s little indication that’s going to change, in part, reports Politico, because Republicans badly lost the shutdown battle and passing immigration reform would be a huge legacy piece for President Barack Obama.

Lawmakers all say they love the family farmer. They sure have a funny way of showing it.