For experienced California avocado growers like Fallbrook’s 80-year-old Charlie Wolk, the industry’s most pressing problem is crystal clear: There just aren’t enough workers to go around. “Somebody told me, ‘Well, we have to pay people more,’ ” Wolk says. “And I said that paying them isn’t the issue — you don’t have a body to pay!”
Labor shortages, along rising water costs in California, have driven up the cost of avocado production, making it a less viable crop for growers. Wolk worries that California avocados may ultimately become a thing of the past. “We have a serious labor problem in the avocado industry and these problems translate into other segments of the agriculture industry, especially our tree crops,” says Wolk. Tree crops need to be picked by hand—work that requires agile, young workers. “Many older guys are scared of climbing so high to harvest the fruit,” he says.
Wolk owns an avocado grove and manages dozens of others through his company, Bejoca Grove & Landscape Management. He had been relocated to the area, just east of the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton, when he served as a lieutenant colonel in the Corps. When he saw his new home was surrounded by avocado trees, the fruit quickly became a passion.
The little town, located north of San Diego, is known as the avocado capital of the world, and today Wolk serves as its unofficial mayor. The annual avocado festival draws crowds to downtown that can swell to 100,000. Today Wolk’s company employs about 20 year-round workers, all of whom are either U.S. citizens or are authorized to work in the United States. The foreman, who has been with the company for 30 years, is a first-generation Mexican-American.
Still, some of the groves he manages lack for labor. “I don’t know how many times we have heard things like, ‘Why don’t you just hire Americans?’ But it’s not that simple,” he says.
Take, for example, what happened to California’s strawberry crops, he explains: Acreage declined in part due to labor shortages. One story is typical: A few years ago an unemployment office in San Diego county sent some 30 American workers to a local strawberry farm to pick fruit. “They all started working and only one of them lasted all day,” Wolk says. “The rest said, ‘Hell, I am not doing this anymore.’ ”
We have to do something in order to get a system that is legal, enforceable, and traceable for workers, that also provides enough labor for agriculture.
Wolk admits that he may be “getting too old and cranky,” but he worries about the country’s work ethic—especially when agriculture jobs pay comparatively well. Field workers typically earn between $12 and $14 per hour, more than the entry-level retail wage of $9 to $10 per hour.
But where U.S.-born workers aren’t interested in field labor, foreign-born workers are. In California, more than two-thirds of the miscellaneous agricultural workers are foreign-born. The problem is that in recent years, the number of new immigrants arriving in the United States to work in agriculture has fallen by 75 percent, contributing to a labor shortage that has cost farmers an estimated $3.1 billion in fresh produce sales every year. In the Golden State, the field and crop workforce shrunk by 39.4 percent between 2002 and 2014. Wolk believes sensible immigration reform in Washington, DC, could help farmers restore the labor they so desperately need.
Wolk has spent years advocating for such reform. He served as chairman of the California Avocado Commission, as founding chairman of the Federal Haas Avocado Board, as executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, and on the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce. He has taken too many trips to Washington to count. “The Farm Bureau has been working on immigration reform for decades, trying to find a solution, trying to facilitate a compromise with legislators, and offering different suggestions,” he says. “We have to do something in order to get a system that is legal, enforceable, and traceable for workers, that also provides enough labor for agriculture.”
Wolk says that politicians are reluctant to “stick their necks out” to reform immigration policy. They tell him it only “gets constituents mad” and ask what’s in it for them. The answer, says Wolk, is that California can produce avocados and other fruit. “We have a serious labor problem in the avocado industry,” Wolk says. “And you know, cherries and strawberries are also hand-labored. There are no machines. You have to have a man or a woman from some of the other countries doing that work.”