IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Growers: More Imported Produce Due to Lack of Labor

Farmers say inaction on immigration laws are causing labor shortages and less U.S. produce
Image: Head lettuce field
A lettuce field in the Santa Barbara coast of California. T. Ikeda

Carlos Castañeda's father came to the U.S. as a farm laborer in 1964. Less than 30 years later, he was able to build a company now run by his son which provides labor and staffing to primarily small farms in the Santa Barbara Coast. But for the past three years - every year worse than the previous one - Castañeda says he does not have enough people - primarily immigrant laborers - to staff the farms who call for help with their harvests.

"It's really heartbreaking," says Castañeda, describing driving by farms and seeing produce which could not be harvested on time. "These growers - many Japanese-American, Mexican-American, finally got a break when people started buying local," explains Castañeda. "They put seed and irrigation, a lot of investments. I doubt all of these farmers will be able to keep their business."

Castañeda estimates that last year alone, labor was down by at least 28 to 30 percent. In recent years, as authorities have cracked down on immigration at the border and as deportations have increased, there are less laborers to work in the farms. He says his payroll has been in a downward spiral, and he is angry at the lack of immigration legislation in Washington.

"We were so hopeful last year. It seems like it had made it to the top of the agenda," he says, referring to the sweeping bipartisan immigration reform bill passed in the Senate, and now stalled since last June in the House.

The Senate reform bill included a future legal agricultural visa program allowing farms to bring in more than 300,000 additional temporary farm workers during need.

A new report by the bipartisan group Partnership for a New American Economy, which advocates for immigration reform, found that the consumption of imported fruits and vegetables in recent years had increased by about 79 percent. Labor challenges due to current immigration laws, including the H-2A visa program, has contributed to a reduction of $1.4 billion in farm income in 2012, a reduction of approximately 89,000 jobs in 2012, and about a 27 percent decrease in domestic market share for U.S. produce.

Between 2004-2005 and 2012-2013 in Florida, farm worker employment during strawberry picking months declined by 13.3 percent, and a 2012 survey found almost one in three farmers planned to downsize. In Pasco, Washington, an asparagus farmer cited in the report had to leave roughly 20 acres in the ground, which would have brought $2,000 in revenue per acre, due to labor shortages.

Nationally, USDA farm labor data showed the number of farm workers fell by 14.8 percent from 2000 to 2013.

For Castañeda, the clock is ticking. He says he is turning away more and more farms calling for staffing, and he sees the domestic share of produce going down, and is increasingly frustrated.

"Not only do we have border constraints, you have a huge lack of foresight by our leadership. Rather than making decisions that our best for our country's future, they're making decisions that are best for a political party," he says, referring to the House. "Our leadership needs to focus their attention on this."