Nearly every farmer in San Diego County will tell you that picking is a skill.
Loosen the button on the avocado, and it ripens too soon – something supermarkets do not want to see. Pull too hard on a heavy ripe orange, and you risk tearing the rind, making it unsellable at the market. Harvest asparagus too soon or too late, or cut it too far above the soil, and a farmer loses money.
California’s growers rely on migrant labor to do the majority of this backbreaking work, but tightening immigration policies have left farmers short on crews, a development that prompted California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to send outgoing Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano a letter last week asking immigration officials to stop targeting agricultural workers, and focus on violent criminals instead.
“I am unfortunately again receiving troubling feedback from farmers in California that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is increasing I-9 worksite audits against agricultural employers,” she wrote. “Many farmers and growers in California informed me that their business and livelihood are at risk due to a shortage of legal harvesters, pickers, pruners, packers, and farm workers.”
Enforcement, she says, is exacerbating an already existing labor crisis.
“The workers believed that ICE would get their addresses, go to their homes and pull their wives and babies out of their homes and deport them,” he said. “A mushroom farm is like a dairy: You have to deal with mushrooms and every day you pick, pack and ship. There is no labor to do this physical work we do o the farm.”
A farmer I spoke with said he is reluctant to go on record for fear of attracting immigration officials.
“We are short on labor. We’re putting off infrastructure jobs that should have been done months ago. We lost a lot of avocados. They dropped on the ground and we couldn’t get them off [the tree] in time. That stuff that falls on the ground? It’s done. Ever smell a rotten avocado? Imagine a whole grove. It stinks out there,” he said.
Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego Farm Bureau, said local farmers are wary of speaking out in public on the issue in part because of enforcement, but also because they worry about blowback from the the anti-immigration crowd.
“We’re a county of specialty crops,” said Larson. “We’re not mechanized. All of our product goes into the fresh market – oranges, strawberries, tomatoes. In San Diego, we virtually have no mechanized crops, so every farmer is vulnerable.”
How tight is the labor supply? A survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation in December showed that 71 percent of farmers who grew labor-intensive crops like tree fruits, vegetables, table grapes, raisins and berries experienced employee shortages. Many worry that problem will only get worse if immigration reform continues to languish in Congress.
“We need the House to pass one bill on immigration reform,” said Larson. “We met with [Rep. Juan] Vargas and [Rep. Susan] Davis already. And we’re meeting with [Rep. Scott] Peters soon. We’re hoping to convince them to take leadership positions to get some manner of bill through the House.
“It’s not a food security issue just yet, but it will be if Congress can’t get their act together.”