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Farmer: Without Immigration Reform ‘Agriculture is Going to Head South’

On America’s farms, it’s common to see foreign-born laborers harvesting crops and working long hours in the fields. It’s less common to see the very same workers ending up in charge. But Joe Del Bosque’s family, who came to California’s Imperial Valley from Mexico a century ago, accomplished just that. Today, they own a 2000-acre farm that produces organic and conventional melons as well as asparagus, almonds, and cherries. They employ a full time staff of 25 people, and hire up to 300 people at peak harvest. Most are immigrant or migrant workers.

“Melons, asparagus, and cherries all require an intense amount of labor, since they need to be picked by hand,” says Del Bosque. This means workers may be bent over in the sun for 10 hours a day, seven days a week. “We have perhaps a handful of Americans,” he says. “We just can’t get many of those folks to come out and work in the fields.”

We have a continued reliance on labor and that will not go away until agriculture in California goes away.

Del Bosque’s father, a second-generation American, grew up in California. In the 1950s, he became the manager of a melon farm. His son Joe grew up around the business and aspired to own his own farm. In 1985, at the age of 36, he had saved enough money to do just that. Two years later, he formalized his father’s role as his business partner. “Agriculture here in California and immigrants have gone hand in hand for generations,” Del Bosque says. When his family first arrived here in the early 1900s, “all you had to do was come to the border, pay a fee. They gave you your green card, and you were good.”

Today, many of Del Bosque’s seasonal workers come from Arizona or Mexico. Sometimes, because they don’t have a temporary visa, they get stuck and have trouble getting into the country. That means trouble for the farm. “A lot of times, we are starting our season and if they aren’t here, or if they’ve had delays, then we are short people,” he says. “There have been instances where we have lost some of our crops.”

Losing a crop from even part of a field means that Del Bosque can lose tens of thousands of dollars. Melons are highly perishable. They can’t wait to be picked. “If they’re not cut down, they will rot,” Del Bosque explains.

Del Bosuqe wants to see immigration reform centered around a functioning guest-worker program. This would ensure that businesses like his have enough manpower during critical harvest times. It would also protect his workers from exploitation. “Some folks have to pay a lot of money, around $6,000 or $7000, to get into the country, so obviously they’re paying some sort of trafficker to get in,” he says. Finally, a better guest-worker program would address the labor shortage that exists as more children of immigrants assimilate into American society and leave the business.

“Our workers also get to an age and retire, creating a need for replacements,” Del Bosque says. “Their children aren’t going to replace them and their grandchildren aren’t, either. We need new people. We have a continued reliance on labor and that will not go away until agriculture in California goes away. If we don’t do something about immigration policy, a lot more of our agriculture is going to head south.”

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