Illegal immigration down, changing face of California farms

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GONZARES, Calif. — This looks like a century-old photograph of California agriculture: Dozens of Mexican men kneel on their knees, pluck radishes from the ground and bundle them into bundles.But the Sabor farm staff The radish plot, located about a mile south of the Salinas River, represents the forefront of a revolution in how America gets its food from the land.

For starters, kneeling young people are working with technology not even seen 10 years ago. Crouching in the back of what looks like a tractor fitted with a packing plant, they put bunches of turnips within reach on a conveyor belt that cold washes them before crating them and transporting them to refrigerated trucks distributed in.

Another change is more subtle, but no less revolutionary. None of these workers entered the United States illegally.

Both shifts were driven by the same impetus: a dwindling supply of young illegal immigrants from Mexico, the backbone of California’s crop-harvesting workforce since the 1960s.

The new demographic reality has farmers scrambling to bring in more high-paid foreign workers on temporary guest worker visas, experiment with automation as much as possible, and even replace crops with less labor-intensive alternatives.

“In the past, you had a lot of people,” said Vanessa Quinlan, director of human resources at Sabor Farms. These days, not so much: about 90% of Saborof Farm president Jess Quinlan, husband of Ms. Quinlan, said the harvesters were from Mexico on temporary visas. “We need to make sure we have usable carcasses when the crop matures,” he said.

Despite anxiety over the recent surge in immigration, Mexicans — who make up the majority of illegal immigrants in the U.S. and most farm workers in California — Not coming in the numbers they once did.

There are multiple reasons: Mexico’s aging population Reduced potential immigrant groups.Mexico’s relative stability after the financial crisis of the 1980s and 1990s reduced the pressure on them to leave, while real estate bubble burst Cut demand for their jobs north of the border in the United States. Tighter U.S. border enforcement, especially during the Trump administration, has further eroded mobility.

“The wave of Mexican immigration to the U.S. has now peaked,” economist Gordon Hansen and Craig McIntosh wrote.

As a result, the total population of illegal immigrants in the United States peaked in 2007, It has declined slightly since then. California felt this first. From 2010 to 2018, the state’s illegal immigrant population fell by about 10 percent to 2.6 million. The reduced flow has greatly reduced the supply of young workers who can farm fields and harvest crops cheaply.

The country reported that from 2010 to 2020, the average california farm worker Down from 170,000 to 150,000. The number of undocumented immigrant workers has declined even faster.The most recent Department of Labor National Agricultural Workers Survey In 2017 and 2018, illegal immigrants accounted for just 36 percent of crop workers employed on California farms, the report said. According to the survey conducted 10 years ago, this percentage is lower than 66%.

The immigrant workforce is also aging. The average locally employed crop worker on California farms was 43 years old in 2017 and 2018, eight years older than the survey conducted between 2007 and 2009, the survey showed. The proportion of workers under the age of 25 rose from one in four.

Farms eager to find an alternative are turning to a tool they have largely shunned for years: the H-2A visa, which allows them to import workers for several months of the year.

The visa was created during immigration reform in 1986 as a concession to farmers who complained that the legalization of millions of illegal immigrants would strip them of their labor, as newly legalized workers would seek better jobs outside of agriculture .

But farmers found the H-2A process too expensive. Under the rules, they must provide H-2A workers with housing, transportation to fields, and even meals. They must pay them a so-called adverse impact wage rate calculated by the Department of Agriculture to ensure they do not lower wages for domestic workers.

It’s still cheaper and easier for farmers Hire young immigrants who continues to cross the border illegally. (employer documents required Prove that the worker is eligible for the job, but these are easy to fake. )

That is no longer. California has about 35,000 workers on H-2A visas, a 14-fold increase from 2007. During harvest season, they fill the low-end motels that dot California’s farm towns. A 1,200-bed housing facility for H-2A workers just opened in Salinas. In King City, about 50 miles south, a former tomato processing shed was converted to house them.

“In America, we have an aging and settled illegal workforce,” said Philip Martin, an expert on agricultural labor and immigration at the University of California, Davis. “Fresh blood is H-2A.”

Immigrant guest workers are unlikely to fill the labor gap on U.S. farms, though. First, they are more expensive than most of the unauthorized workers they are replacing. The adverse impact wage rate in California this year is $17.51, well above the $15 minimum wage farmers must pay local hired workers.

So farmers are also looking elsewhere. “We’re living in borrowed time,” says Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers, a western farmers lobby group. “I want to mechanize half of the agricultural harvest in 10 years. There is no other solution.”

From processed tomatoes and wine grapes to mixed salad greens and tree nuts, most produce that is hardy or doesn’t need to look pretty has been harvested mechanically. Sabor Farms has been using machines to harvest salad mixes for decades.

“Processed food is mostly automated,” said Walter Duflock, who runs the Western Growers Innovation and Technology Center in Salinas, where tech entrepreneurs meet farmers. “The effort is now on the fresh side.”

Apples are being planted on trellises for easy harvesting. Scientists have developed transgenic “tall” broccoli with long stems that can be harvested mechanically. Pruning and pruning of trees and vines is increasingly automated. Lasers have been introduced to field weeding. Biodegradable “plant tape” containing seeds and nutrients can now be sprouted in nurseries and transplanted with giant machines that simply unwrap the tape into fields.

A few rows below the staff harvesting radish skewers at Sabor farm Patch, the Quinlans are running their fancy automatic radish harvester they bought from the Netherlands. Operated by three workers, it plucks individual turnips from the ground and sprays them into crates on a nearby truck.

However, automation also has limitations. Harvesting produce that cannot be crushed or slaughtered by robots remains a challenge.One Survey of the Western Growers Innovation and Technology Center It was found that about two-thirds of growers of specialty crops such as fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts have invested in automation in the past three years. Still, they predict that by 2025, only about 20 percent of the lettuce, apple and broccoli harvests — none of which are strawberries — will be automated.

Some crops are unlikely to survive. Crops such as bell peppers, broccoli and fresh tomatoes are declining. Foreign suppliers are filling most of the vacancies. Imports of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables have nearly doubled over the past five years, reaching $31 billion by 2021.

Consider asparagus, a particularly labor-intensive crop. Only 4,000 acres were harvested statewide in 2020, down from 37,000 acres 20 years ago. The $15 state minimum wage, along with a new requirement for overtime pay after a 40-hour work week, has increased asparagus acreage by nearly $330 a month for growers in the Mexican state of Sinaloa — where workers earn about $330 a month. After nearly three times 15 times, squeezed it further. 2020 to reach 47,000 acres.

H-2A workers won’t help fend off cheaper Mexican asparagus. They are even more expensive than local workers, about half of whom are immigrants who acquired legal status from an early age; about a third are undocumented. Capital is not rushing to automate crops.

“There are no unicorns there,” said Neill Callis, who manages the asparagus packing shed for Turlock Fruit Company, which grows about 300 acres of asparagus in the San Joaquin Valley east of Salinas. “You can’t use a single opportunity to attract VCs to solve the $2-a-box problem of 50 million cartons,” he said.

While Turlock has automated as much as possible, bringing in a German machine to sort, trim and bundle the spears in the packing shed, harvesting is still done by hand – hunched workers walk up the rows, using a Throw the 18-inch knife into the spear.

Mr Callis said Turlock had been sticking with the asparagus crop these days, mostly to secure its labour supply. Providing jobs during the February-May asparagus harvest helps the farm retain regular workers—240 in the fields and about 180 in a shed shared with another farm—for 3,500 acres of melons Key summer harvest work.

Losing a source of cheap illegal immigrant workers would change California. Other employers that rely heavily on cheap labor – such as builders, landscapers, restaurants and hotels – will have to adjust.

Paradoxically, changes in California’s farmland appear to threaten the undocumented local labor farmers once relied on. Ancelmo Zamudio from Chilapa, Guerrero, Mexico, and José Luis Hernández, from Ejutla, Oaxaca, came to the United States 15 years ago when they were teenagers. They now live in Stockton and work primarily on the vineyards in Lodi and Napa.

They are building a life in America. They brought their wives; had children; hoped that they would somehow legalize their status, perhaps through another attempt at immigration reform like the one in 1986.

In their view, things are clearly more obscure. “We used to prune the leaves on the vines by hand, but they introduced robots last year,” complained Mr Zamudio. “They said it was because no one was there.”

Mr. Hernández complained that H-2A workers, even if they had less experience, could earn more and didn’t have to pay rent or support a family. He worries about rising rents — new immigrants to the Bay Area are pushing up rents. He complained that regulations that forced farmers to pay overtime after a 40-hour work week cost him, as farmers slashed overtime and reduced his workweek from six to five days.

He worries about the future. “They came with H-2As and robots, and it scared me,” he said. “That would disappoint us.”