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.