Fifth-generation cherry farmer Dean Devine harvests around 110 acres of cherries on his properties in Modesto and Lodi, in California. He has been in the cherry business for 40 years and knows how important it is to treat the fruit with care. Cherries are one of the most labor-intensive crops. “There is no mechanical harvesting, because the fruit won’t stand up to it,” Devine explains. “Attempts at mechanizing have resulted in lots of bruising and things like missing stems. That isn’t good for marketing.”
But in the last decade, and especially over the last five to six years, the industry has faced a labor crisis. “A lot of it has to do with immigration,” Devine explains. “The only ones who seem to want to do the work that we have are the Mexican people.” Otherwise, he says, there aren’t people knocking on doors to work.
Just in the last couple of years, it’s more noticeable than ever. Everybody is short on labor.
A decade ago, when he had less acreage, Devine employed between 75 to 80 people during harvest and one or two during the off season. Today, he employs two to three full-time workers, but he would like to have as many as 150 during harvest. Yet those much-needed workers are increasingly hard — if not impossible — to find.
Just under 70 percent of California’s farmworkers are immigrants. And, due to ongoing labor shortages, the state’s agricultural workforce decreased by nearly 40 percent between 2002 and 2014. “Just in the last couple of years, it’s more noticeable than ever,” Devine says. “Everybody is short on labor. One contractor will say, ‘Oh I can bring in 100 people tomorrow. I can do this. I can do that. But it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. We had a struggle this year, but we got through.”
The shortages are indicative of a greater problem, one that affects many different kinds of crops across the state. “As an example, we used to have 25,000 to 30,000 acres of asparagus here in the California delta,” Devine says. “Nowadays, we are lucky to have 2,000.” Like cherries, he says, “It is all hand labor. I’d say that in less than five years, there might not be any more asparagus out in the Delta anymore.”
Devine would like to be optimistic. “It’s hard after you spend a lifetime doing this, trying to come out at the end having something to pass on, but it’s just getting tougher and tougher. And although my kids grew up in the business, and I’d like to see them go on if they can — if they don’t, well, that’s their choice.”
Immigration policy matters to him because it holds the potential to make or break the business he’s dedicated his life to. “Immigration reform would help stabilize my life,” Devine says. “I would be able to get help when I knew I needed it.” To Devine, something like the Bracero Program, which began in the 1940s and allowed migrant workers to come to California to work the fields, would make sense today. Employers could provide a place to live, and food and shelter, and workers could work the harvest and then return home. “If we could have some kind of an agreement with Mexico, they’re the only ones that are going to work,” Devine says. “We aren’t the only industry that needs help. The food and hotel industries do, too.”