Ventura County farmers face labor shortages

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Leslie Leavens checks avocados as workers dump them into a bin. They’re Haas avocados — bright green, firm, some as big as softballs. “This year we have a really big crop,” she says. “Last year and the year before was pretty light. But this year is just enormous.”

Leavens grows 1,200 acres of avocados and lemons in Ventura and Monterey counties.  Normally, a big crop would be good news for a farmer. But this year Leavens has a problem: finding enough workers to harvest her crops.

“Because were having such a hard time finding labor this year, he brought in a crew from Ontario,” Leavens says of her foreman. “And he’s been bringing them up in a van every day. That's another 25 guys, but we've never had to do that before though.”

Tony Gomez, the foreman, has worked on the farm for almost 40 years. He blames the labor shortage on increased border security.

“I have some friends [who] tried to come over, but they can't because the border line is so tough to get across, so dangerous right now,” he says. “So we’re short on people right now. We have orchards that we haven’t touched, even though we're supposed to pick them in January, February.”

John Krist, director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, says the problem extends throughout the U.S., but has been particularly acute in California, where so many crops need to be picked by hand. He believes the  reasons for the labor shortage are multiple.

“The agriculture industry in Mexico itself has improved,” Krist says. “There are just more job opportunities in Mexico than there used to be. You combine that with the increased border enforcement, the drug cartel violence along the border, and the general economic malaise in the U.S., and there’s just been a big decrease in the flow of migrant labor across the border.”

Because almost all of the agricultural work force in Ventura County is Mexican, growers such as Leavens have had to scramble to find workers. The county Farm Bureau estimates the number of workers has dropped by 25 percent over the past two years.

“We are dependent on a foreign-born work force,” Leavens says. “This is not the kind of work that people raised here want to do.”

“I mean look at this,” she says, pointing to workers working above. “There are guys climbing up in trees on ladders with 40 pounds of avocados, and once they get up there they need both hands for a picking pole, so it's pretty precarious.”

The problem is, without enough labor, crops are harvested late and lose value. This applies to all of Ventura’s almost $2 billion worth of fruits and vegetables.

Leavens believes the Senate’s immigration reform bill could be a big help. If it becomes law, the number of seasonal visas would increase five-fold, from 20,00 to more than 100,000. In addition, the bill would remove many of the bureaucratic hoops farmers have to jump through to obtain workers under the old program.

“It would be a huge benefit to be able to bring in workers for just the harvest season," Leavens says, "or  the parts of the year where we need the extra labor."

The bill would also create a so-called blue card, which would give farm workers who are undocumented a fast track to becoming legal residents. 

Isauro Hernandez, a worker from Mexico, would qualify for that part of the program.  He says if  undocumented workers like him could obtain papers, they could come out of the shadows and contribute more to the U.S. economy.

“Many people for this reason don’t even want to buy a house,” he says. “Because one never knows in what moment one’s luck is going to turn and you get deported.”

Hernandez crossed north eight years ago and he hasn’t returned to Mexico since. Even though he’d like to see his family, he’s afraid that — given how much border security has increased — he wouldn’t make it back into the U.S. and his job.

The Senate bill, in its present form, has the support of the Farm Worker’s Union and big growers —  two groups not accustomed to agreeing on much.  But not everyone is on board. Some Republicans are concerned, especially in light of the attack at the Boston Marathon, that the bill doesn’t do enough to safeguard the border. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) expressed his doubts at a recent Judiciary Committee hearing. He said he's not convinced that unions and growers had the best interest of the U.S. in mind. His primary focus, he said, was national security. 

He also wasn’t buying the notion that only foreigners would want these kinds of jobs. “I’m also dubious about the idea that they’re jobs that Americans won’t do," Sessions said. “I worked construction in the Alabama sun, hauling lumber and stuff. I know Americans do that every single day — tough work. Where I was raised, we were taught to respect people who did hard work and not to say it’s a job an American won’t do.”

But José Perez, the crew boss at Leavens Ranch, says he’s never seen an American who wanted to do this sort of work. The solution to the labor shortage, he says, is to provide undocumented workers with papers. He says it’s not fair that workers have benefits deducted from their paycheck without actually being able to make use of them. He says immigration reform is necessary, but he’s not sure about the chances. “I’ll be an optimist when I see people coming and going with their visas,” Perez says.

Leavens is more sanguine. “I'm really optimistic,” she says. “At this point we've gotten very, very far.  The bill is pretty much not loved by anybody and so that’s probably a good place to start.”

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