In 2016, Bertha Magaña of Magaña Farm in Watsonville lost roughly 14,400 pounds of strawberries. The loss wasn’t due to pests or weather woes. It was due to a lack of manpower--a challenge many Kitchen Table Advisors clients and farmers across the nation are facing.
“There are not enough laborers is basically what it comes down to,” says David Mancera, a business advisor with Kitchen Table Advisors. “Our farmers are struggling.”
For Magaña, no labor to help harvest one acre of strawberries for three consecutive months meant missing out on some $16,000 in profit. Magaña is not alone. The lack of labor has forced many farmers across the country to cut back production or even sell portions of their land.
On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump drew a hard line on immigration, claiming in a speech on August 31st that, “…most illegal immigrants are lower-skilled workers with less education who compete directly against vulnerable American workers, and these illegal workers draw much more out of the system than they will ever pay in.”
The reality is that many of the roles undocumented immigrants fill would otherwise go unfilled. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, small business owners say that U.S.-born workers don’t want the jobs these immigrants are taking on. There is a serious labor shortage across the nation, and it’s hitting agriculture especially hard. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that 70% of all field workers are undocumented.
Mancera explains that right now it’s a laborer’s market. “If you walk around the Salinas Valley, you’ll see signs all over the place advertising for labor.”
What’s behind the shortage? Mancera notes a number of factors, including stricter immigration laws, an increasingly costly — and dangerous — border crossing, new economic drivers to stay in Mexico, and increasing work options in industries with easier, safer conditions like hospitality and landscaping.
The result of this shortage is unharvested crops and even forfeited land. According to a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan group that aims to influence immigration reform, the labor decline has reduced produce and tree nut production by $3.1 billion per year. The group reports that in California, the number of full-time equivalent field and crop workers declined by about 85,000 people between 2002 and 2014.
The desperate need for more hands on deck puts farm owners in a relatively powerless position. “The farm workers are jumping from place to place,” says Mancera. “They know they have the upper hand, so if there’s something they don’t like, they just leave.”
With a commitment to sustainability, many of the Kitchen Table Advisors farmers find themselves in a particularly difficult position owing to the fact that their farm operations are labor-intensive. Non-mechanized harvests and avoidance of pesticides mean that small farmers are more reliant on individuals to support their production. Rising wages across industries and a shrinking pool of farm workers makes it increasingly challenging for small farm owners to reach economic viability.
Mancera notes that raising wages isn’t a viable option for most farmers due to economic constraints. At the same time, for many laborers, higher wages aren’t the ultimate goal as they don’t want to lose benefits like childcare services.
What they are interested in is year-round work. Some farmers are joining forces to offer long-term work via labor shares. For the workers, it means having work for several harvests lined up instead of just one. Mancera praises the farmers’ creativity, but notes the complications with this approach: “It gets tricky because they also have to try and plan their production and planting cycles around the shared labor.”
Another common approach Mancera sees is farmers looking to relatives and the community. Social gatherings, be it Sunday church or soccer, become a way to find help. Because the people in these networks of friends, family, and neighbors typically have day jobs, they’ll go to the farm in the evening to help harvest. Payment varies from cash to vegetables or even a big group dinner.
Looking ahead, Mancera sees the financial advising that Kitchen Table Advisors offers as being more vital than ever. By providing his clients with a deeper understanding of their finances, Mancera hopes to help them make more informed, empowered business decisions. He is also eager to support them in utilizing the federal H2-A visa program which provides temporary visas for foreigners who’ve secured seasonal agriculture work.
As for what we can do to help, Mancera feels that the answer doesn’t lie so much in talking to Congress as it does in talking amongst ourselves: “By talking about [agriculture], maybe we can become more appreciative of those who produce and harvest the food that we eat and that nourishes our body.”
He’s hopeful that if the dialogue around food and its growers was ongoing and alive at every dinner table, things would start to shift. He muses that perhaps curious teens — aware that their food comes from the Salinas Valley, not just the grocery store — would even consider harvesting produce as a summer job.
One thing is for certain: We owe it to our farmers to talk more about the labor shortage, not the misplaced fear of Mexicans stealing American jobs. “I don’t know why we’re not talking about it more,” says Mancera. “I don’t know why it’s not the conversation.”
Photos courtesy of Blue House Farm.