California farmers have long relied on immigrants to tend to their crops, a tradition that for decades has formed part of the state’s cultural identity.
The farm labor movement extends as far back as the early 1960s, when civil rights activist Cesar Chavez mobilized thousands of Latino farm workers in California to fight for better working conditions.
That tradition continues today, with foreign-born workers accounting for the vast majority of the country’s agricultural laborers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that half are unauthorized immigrants.
Now, this once-reliable source of labor appears to be dwindling, the result of less migration from Mexico and an aging farm worker population, among other complex factors. Domestic-born workers are unwilling to take their place, according to agricultural experts.
Farmers are left scrambling, and a large portion are taking measures to cope.
Some have begun planting fewer acres or have switched to less labor-intensive or machine-operated crops, while others have moved their operations to Mexico where they can hire larger crews, according to Guadalupe Sandoval, executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association.
“It’s made for a lot of competition for some employers out there in trying to secure adequate crews,” he said. “We’re seeing vineyards ripped up and replaced for almonds, certain raisins replaced with new varieties that will be machine-harvested instead of hand-harvested.”
Farmers say federal immigration reform is needed to regulate and grow their workforce, but critics are doubtful that the labor shortage is so severe.
President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration, introduced last November, included provisions to shield 250,000 farm workers from deportation. Half of those farm workers protected under the executive action would reside in California. But Obama’s plan remains blocked, and there’s no sign Congress will act on its own.
The number of full-time field and crop workers throughout the United States dropped by about 146,000 people — more than 20 percent — between 2002 and 2014, according to a 2015 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group of business leaders that supports “sensible” immigration reform.