Nearly a month after the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill, the debate in the House drags on. Meanwhile, local farmers are eager for a solution. They’re facing an ongoing labor shortage that many feel could be solved by immigration reform.
Joe Pezzini walks onto a field in Castroville greeting harvest workers as they head off on a break. Nearby about twenty men stand flanked by conveyor belts on a flatbed truck. They’re sorting baskets of freshly picket Brussels sprouts. Ocean Mist Farms is known for fresh artichokes, but it also grows more than 30 different vegetables on farms in Castroville and throughout the west coast. Getting all that produce to market requires a lot of hands. “We probably have 800 plus people working today, harvesting produce, working in our farming operation,” said Pezzini, Ocean Mist Farms Chief Operating Officer. And on any given day, Pezzini could actually use more hands.
In recent years Ocean Mist, and other area growers, have been dealing with a labor shortage. They cite a combination of factors: an improving economy in Mexico, fewer immigrants crossing the border and increased enforcement in the U.S. According to a survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation, about 70% of growers of labor intensive crops like fruits and vegetables, reported a worker shortage last year, and this year’s survey is trending in that same direction. “The shortage really started showing up in the last two to three years, it seemed to be much more acute. You can drive through the valley right now, and there’s signs up looking for workers, primarily strawberry pickers,” said Pezzini. For its part, Ocean Mist started doing things like advertising on radio and offering employees recruitment incentives. But Pezzini says those measures are just band aids, the real solution to the shortage is immigration reform.
Jim Bogart has been pushing for immigration reform for nearly two decades. He the President and General Counsel of the Grower-Shipper Association, which represents members of the agriculture industry on the Central Coast. Sitting in his office in Salinas, he says the problem is more acute now than it’s ever been. “Doing nothing is not an option. We need access to a legal, stable workforce, and that includes the people that are here now that have been working in ag for many, many years, as well as a visa program to get temporary workers in this country at the times, and the numbers that we need them,” said Bogart. He says he’s cautiously optimistic about progress in D.C., but whatever happens, reform needs to be comprehensive like the Senate bill which includes everything from enforcement to a pathway to legalization. He adds sticking with the status quo will eventually have its consequences. “The public and the politicians back in Washington D.C. just need to ask themselves do we want to become as dependent on a foreign food supply as we are on foreign oil,” said Bogart.
At a news conference this week in old town Salinas, the California Strawberry Commission kicked off its own campaign to push for immigration reform. It’s sending a delegation to Washington D.C. next week. Rogelio Ponce is on the Board and a third generation Watsonville strawberry farmer. While immigration reform will help his business, he says the biggest reason for reform is out in the fields. “If we do right by the individuals who are our employees, our workers, everything else will fall into line. You know we’ve got to think of the individuals first. It’s not so much profitability or making money. It’s first and foremost, you’ve got to be fair to the individuals working out in the fields,” said Ponce. The House debate on immigration reform could soon be slowed. Congress breaks for five week recess at the end of next week.