From picking the perfect peach to milking hundreds of cows, ag is king in the Central Valley. But despite higher wages, farmers are battling an ongoing labor shortage. It's been a problem for several years, but now, President Trump's pledge to crackdown on immigration is adding to the problem. Eyewitness News’ Alex Backus looked into the potential impact in the Valley.


By ALEX BACKUS | May 19, 2017

Just weeks away is peak harvest season in the Valley, but concern continues to grow for Valley farmers. Some say they don't have enough workers for the job.

Despite higher wages, farmers are battling an ongoing labor shortage. It's been a problem for several years, but now, President Trump's pledge to crackdown on immigration is adding to the problem.

Eyewitness News’ Alex Backus looked into the potential impact.

From picking the perfect peach to milking hundreds of cows, ag is king in the Central Valley. But early in the season a problem is growing. There aren't enough workers.

“It’s of a magnitude and scale we don't see anywhere else in the United States,” said Ryan Jacobsen, Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO.

"A lot of people are fearful because they might get deported."

Jorge Negrete, HMC Ranch manager, said, “Everybody's so scared and afraid.”

The political climate spreading fear in the fields is causing concern for those running the multi-billion dollar industry.

Along a quiet road in Selma sits HMC Farms – one of the largest stone fruit operations in the country.

By 10 a.m., workers have already been at it for hours – carefully and quickly choosing the fruit that will end up in grocery stores all across the country.

Negrete overseas the entire operation. He came to the United States from Mexico City in 1976.

“When I came to the U.S., I did not have visa. I was illegal at that time,” Negrete said.

He's since become a U.S. citizen after decades of tireless work in the orchards. He climbed the ladder from picking peaches to ranch manager.

“I have my kids and my wife, and I have really the American dream,” Negrete said.

It's the dream that brings so many to the U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 89 percent of California’s crop workers were born in Mexico, and 56 percent are unauthorized to work in the U.S.

While nearly nine out of 10 workers are from Mexico, that number is declining, and it means less hands to pick the fruit.

"Will American people do this job?"

Jon McClarty owns HMC Farms. He said the last few years have been hard.

Will American people do this job?

“I don’t think so. They haven’t yet.” McClarty said. “You have to make choices you don't ideally want to make. Whether it’s if we’re thinning and picking at the same time – picking will get the priority.”

McClarty said that could mean smaller fruit that's less desirable to consumers.

“It really affects the bottom line,” he said.

About an hour away in Firebaugh, workers are busy picking organic asparagus at Joe del Bosque's farm.

Although – usually this time of year the crew is nearly four times this size.

“It's a little bit disconcerting that we would have a shortage this early in the year,” Bosque said.

He's now searching for workers. A shortage could mean asparagus gets left on the field.

“We don't have enough people that we end up losing some of our crop,” Bosque said.

"We don't have enough people that we end up losing some of our crop"

The jobs are here; the hourly wages average in the mid-teens. So what's driving workers away?

Ag experts say the shortage started about 10 years ago – a result of tighter immigration enforcement under President Obama. An improving economy in Mexico and a recovering economy here in the U.S.

Jacobsen said, “Now we’re seeing, as economy picks up, these individuals move to other sectors of the economy whether it’s construction – whether it’s the restaurants, hotels service industries.”

But now President Trump's pledge to crack down on immigration is causing fear in an already depleted workforce.

Last year, “Farmers for Trump” signs filled a rally in Fresno for then candidate Trump. Among the supporters was dairy farmer Tom Barcellos who met with Trump.

“When we talked immigration, and he talks the wall, he said the wall will have a door in it,” Barcellos said.

Barcellos is a third-generation dairy farmer in Tulare County.

He has 1,600 cows marked with yellow tags. A total of 14,000 gallons of milk leave the dairy every day, and it’s shipped all around the world.

While production never stops, Barcellos says a steady stream of labor has.

“Used to have people stopping by year-round asking if you have any work.” Barcellos said. “That has all but evaporated.”

Marco Perez milks cows at Barcellos’ farm, and he said he's also noticed a change.

“A lot of people are fearful because they might get deported,” Perez said. “They've heard ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) comes to dairies pick up people.”

But Valley law enforcement tells Eyewitness News that that is not happening.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said. “Our job is not to round up innocent families and their children.”

The fruit is growing, and peak period for harvest is fast approaching. What's missing is workers.

Jacobsen said, “Crew sizes [are] 50 to 75 percent of the sizes that we would expect them to be this time of year.”

"The illegal immigrants that are working are needed."

It's too early to gauge the impact. Whether it means higher prices or more produce imported from other countries, what is clear is that these workers picking the fruit, asparagus, and milking the cows are needed.

Barcellos said, “The illegal immigrants that are working are needed.”

McClarty said, “You don't have people to work in the field – you don't have this industry at all.”

These farmers want immigration reform – an easier way for people like Negrete to work in the U.S. legally. Through hard work, his daughters have graduated college. He now trains the next generation of workers – workers and farmers hope are here to stay.



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