California’s lush Salinas Valley remains America’s Salad Bowl, producing some 80 percent of all the leafy greens grown in the United States, in addition to berries, almonds, and other high-value crops. But ongoing labor shortages are forcing farmers to change to low-labor crops and those amenable to mechanized harvests. Ken Mitchell’s farm, which has been in the family since the mid-19th century, has stopped growing crops altogether and now raises turkeys, an operation that requires just three workers. “There were fields here that would turn over six crops of lettuce or broccoli on the same land in a year,” says Mitchell, who blames the decrease in migrant field workers for a drop in crop production.
Mitchell’s great-great-grandfather came to California in 1846, before the gold rush, to mine the region’s rivers. Over the next five generations, the Mitchell family worked the same expansive plot of land in Elk Grove. “You just got a piece of ground and they laid claim to it, paid taxes, and then you had ownership,” Mitchell says. Over time, the family came to rely on laborers from Mexico. The notion that now these hardworking farmworkers could be deported irks Mitchell, who is particularly close to his one immigrant employee. “He’s put me out of some serious situations with family issues in emergencies,” Mitchell says. “He is family to me. ”
Mitchell’s father steered the family business away from crops because he became concerned about the possibility of labor shortages, choosing in 1948 the more profitable venture of raising turkeys on contract for a California poultry company. Today Mitchell and his three workers produce 2 million pounds of turkey meat and hatch 80,000 poults per year. “Over the years, we went from farming, to growing our birds from March to November, to growing them year-round,” Mitchell explains. “We are one of the oldest commercial turkey growers in California.”
Most Americans, especially young people, do not want the kinds of wages that agricultural operations pay, Mitchell says. “A lot of people don’t understand that agriculture is not some kind of $50-an-hour job,” he says. “That’s Silicon Valley and microchips. This is base-level, entry-level, hard work, something that immigrant workers already know from the places they came from. If we don’t make immigration reform a priority, it will lead to less lettuce in California because there are no workers. The average American doesn’t think of that.”
You’ve got to have these guys here. They’re willing to work, and they pay taxes, so it’s not like they’re not contributing.
In California, 69.2 percent of miscellaneous agricultural workers were foreign-born in 2014. And despite rising wages indicative of a labor shortage, the field workforce on California farms dropped 39.4 percent between 2002 and 2014, suggesting that more, not fewer, migrant workers are needed. “We have a broken system. We’ve got guys who want to work,” says Mitchell, referring to foreign-born workers, “And we’ve got laws that go against that.”
Mitchell, who served as president of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, says American farmers need a reliable workforce that can function without disruption. “If I wake up this morning and have five things to do on the ranch, but I have got a guy that doesn’t show up for whatever reason, maybe because of his immigration status, then I have to redo what I’m doing,” Mitchell says. “It impacts everybody. But the impact on California agriculture is the biggest out of any state in the nation. You’ve got to have these guys here. They’re willing to work, and they pay taxes, so it’s not like they’re not contributing. We are cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
Mitchell says that, as a conservative, he feels conflicted about the immigration debate. “I agree with some of it. But you know, it doesn’t make sense when you have a system that’s been broken for 40 years,” says Mitchell, who points out that there is no way for undocumented farmworkers to merely “get in line” to enter the United States legally. “How, all of a sudden, do we go and correct it? It is so broken. We need a farmworker program, but if you can’t swallow the whole pill, at least give agriculture and farmworkers some kind of green card so that farmworkers could stay here and work.”