First Generation Farmer May Be Only-Generation Farmer if Foreign Labor Stays Home

Brandon Fawaz grew up tending backyard crops on 15 acres in Fort Jones, a small town in California’s far north Scotts Valley. The son of a Lebanese-American highway patrolman and a school principal, Fawaz ultimately stuck with farming. Today, Fawaz Farming, located 12 miles south of his hometown, produces hay and grain for consumption by horses and dairy and beef cattle. In addtion, Fawaz owns an agriculture service business that sells fertilizers, chemicals, baling twine, seed, and other farm supplies.

He runs an efficient operation, barring one obstacle: The difficulty of securing workers. The shortage — he currently has eight employees down from 18 — has forced him to scale back his business, a move with wider implications for the regional economy. “Hands down, the number one issue that keeps my business from growing larger today is the availability of labor,” he says. “I would do more work, become bigger, and employ more people if there were people that were employable. But I can’t find them.”

Fawaz is not alone in his predicament. Foreign-born workers make up 69.2 percent of California’s agriculture workforce, and when fewer migrant workers enter the United States to do agricultural labor — the number has dropped by 75 percent in recent years — California gets hit particularly hard. By 2014, 85,000 fewer full-time equivalent field and crop workers were in the state than had been in 2002. Agriculture labor shortages cost American growers an estimated $3.1 billion in fresh produce sales every year and impede the ability of U.S. farms to grow and expand, ultimately costing the U.S. economy tens of thousands of jobs in related industries such as trucking, marketing, and equipment manufacturing.

Fawaz did turn to automation to help harvest his hay, but it didn’t help the bottom line. Though he was able to double production by partially converting to big bales, he still made less money. The smaller bales, those weighing about 100 pounds instead of 1,300 pounds, sell at a markup. “I’d say there is $20- to $30-per-ton less value in a big bale versus a small bale,” he says.

I would do more work, become bigger, and employ more people if there were people that were employable. But I can’t find them.

In addition, he still needs workers to run and maintain the equipment. “All of our operations are done with some form of a machine,” Fawaz says. “But we just can’t find the labor to either operate the equipment or to move the irrigation pipes.” Many of the jobs that Fawaz has to offer are good jobs, ones that would be appealing to U.S.-born workers. Equipment operators, mechanics, and irrigators, often working indoors. But the availability of work all depends on Fawaz having enough skilled field hands to manage the crops.

The H-2A visa, which allows farmers to hire non-immigrant, seasonal labor, could provide Fawaz with additional labor. But the program requires that farmers file detailed paperwork many months in advance of the work date, specifying each task and exactly how many workers are needed. Fawaz is eager for immigration reform that will do a better job for American farmers. “I have thought all along that farmers have to help control their own destiny,” he says. “Immigration policy matters, because if we can have a safe, dependable, sustainable workforce, then I have a reasonable expectation of what I can hire and employ, and I can then forecast and budget and try to plan my business ahead of time.”

Fawaz sometimes wonders if his own children will want to farm, and if agriculture would even be a viable industry by then. “I hope they would,” he says. “But you can’t have a farm that is an economical unit without increased labor. And what that looks like in the future, I don’t know. It just keeps getting tougher and tougher.”

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