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Immigration Policy Hurting California Orchards

Santa Barbara County resident Rick Shade has been in the orchard business for generations, so he knows how time-sensitive the harvest is for crops like peaches, flowers, and lettuce. “When that stuff is ready, man, you’ve got to get it harvested today,” he says. “Not yesterday, not tomorrow — today.” And if you don’t have a ready workforce, you’re in trouble.

“Getting foreign laborers to harvest through third-party companies is getting more and more difficult,” Shade says. “Occasionally we use labor when we do a big planting project and need extra hands, and even those folks aren’t as readily available as they once were.”

A lot of the folks who are doing this kind of work are getting gray hairs. They’re going to be retiring before too long.

Shade is a fifth-generation farmer whose family traditionally grew citrus. Today, he and his son devote most of their 800 acres to avocados, which allows for more flexibility come harvest time. The family switched crops, in part, because of labor shortages — the result of expensive, cumbersome immigration policies that are affecting many in Shade’s community. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of field and crop workers declined by 146,000. with California alone losing 87,000 of those workers. That matters, because the state’s agriculture, fishing, and forestry industries contribute around $215 million to the U.S. gross domestic product.

Shade has seen some of his neighbors downsize their operations because they cannot find Americans willing to work the fields, nor can they afford to navigate the complicated U.S. immigration system. All of this is bad news — for these families as well as for the country’s food supply and for other industries that depend on domestic agriculture.

For these reasons, Shade wants immigration reform that would allow farmers to hire the workers they need in a way that is timely and cost effective. And there is precedent: “There was a time when the Bracero program was working,” Shade says, referring to a ‘program that started during World War II and allowed workers from Mexico to temporarily enter the United States to ease agricultural labor shortages. He would like to see something similar for the 21st century.

“Immigrant laborers are the only people who are going to do a lot of these jobs,” Shade says. “I don’t care how much money you put on the table. Third- and fourth- and second-generation Americans are not going to want to do this work. It just isn’t happening. And a lot of the folks who are doing this kind of work are getting gray hairs. They’re going to be retiring before too long.”

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