Rich Hudgins, the CEO of the California Peach Canning Association, has seen the state’s peach acreage decline by nearly 30 percent in the last decade—a troubling trend he attributes to U.S. immigration policy.
“California’s peach acreage has declined by nearly 40 percent in the last decade because growers have been unwilling to plant new orchards,” says Rich Hudgins, CEO of the California Peach Canning Association. The reason? “Uncertainty around the future of our country’s immigration policy,” he explains. As the head of a cooperative that represents the peach growers who produce roughly 80 percent of the nation’s canned peach supply, Hudgins has seen firsthand the detrimental effects the U.S. immigration system has on the country’s agriculture sector.
If the problem isn’t addressed, we’ll continue to see an exodus out of the industry.
“Immigration policies have a direct impact on a grower’s decision to plant a new peach orchard,” Hudgins says, “and there’s a reluctance to plant when they don’t know whether they’ll have the labor they need to grow their crops.” This uncertainty, Hudgins says, has led to a large decline in the industry’s output, as growers choose to harvest other crops—such as nuts—that can be harvested mechanically.
Hudgins, who spent his childhood summers on his grandparents’ ranch and has long been passionate about farming, believes that many Americans don’t understand that most agriculture jobs are labor-intensive and require a specific skill-set. “The peach trees need to be carefully pruned and thinned, and the fruit needs to be hand-picked at specific times in the year,” says Hudgins. “It’s delicate, skilled work—people don’t really get that.”
Hudgins predicts a dire future for the peach industry if immigration reform does not pass soon. “If the problem isn’t addressed, we’ll continue to see an exodus out of the industry,” he says. This decline in the peach crop would have ramifications for the entire economy. “It would cause a ripple effect across California and the nation, with a loss of jobs across the economic food chain,” Hudgins says. “If we don’t address immigration reform, it doesn’t matter what the next farm bill looks like—there won’t be any farmers left to benefit from the legislation.”