SELMA, Calif. -- California's $44 billion agricultural industry faces a worsening labor shortage as farmworkers age, more return home to Mexico and fewer new migrants arrive to replace them.
The state's farming workforce is aging and shrinking for several reasons, including stricter immigration enforcement, an improving economy in Mexico and the lack of interest in field work among the children of farmworkers, according to the Sacramento Bee.
"Basically, we're running out of low-skilled workers," said J. Edward Taylor, a University of California, Davis, economist who has studied the migration of farmworkers from Mexico. "The second generation doesn't do farm work. That's why we've relied on a steady influx of newcomers. And the newcomers are in dwindling supply."
More than 70 percent of state agricultural producers expect a worker shortage starting this spring and worsening through the growing season, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Lawmakers and farm lobbyists are discussing remedies, including granting legal status to more than 1 million undocumented farmworkers and expanding the number of visas for agriculture.
"We have to try to find a system that is not going to cause a major disruption to our industry," said Bryan Little, the farm bureau's director of labor affairs.
Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League, representing 1,100 farms and other agriculture outlets, said his group's workforce fell by 20 to 30 percent during last year's harvest season. By September, some farm crews were as much as 60 percent short of the workers they needed.
Cunha blamed increased farm audits by federal immigration officials and the increasing dangers of crossing the border from Mexico.
"Workers were leaving agriculture because they were fearful of the audits and getting busted," Cunha said. "And then, when they went home, they realized it wasn't worth it to return because of the drug traffickers and human traffickers."
The declining number of farmworkers is prompting some growers to switch to crops that require less labor.
Chandler Farms, about 40 miles southeast of Fresno, decided to cut back on peaches and plums and use more land to grow almonds, which can be harvested by machine.
"I don't know if it is going to get better for a while," said Bill Chandler, who runs the family ranch in Selma with his son. "If you want peaches or plums, or strawberries or lettuce or tomatoes, we need a program in which we can have labor. I don't have the answers."
Arcadio Castro, a foreman at the Chandler ranch, said workers in his Mexican hometown of Zacatecas can't afford to pay a "coyote" to smuggle them across the border and prefer construction jobs in urban areas.
So Castro, 59, has depends on veteran laborers willing to do work many of their children won't consider.
"You're not going to believe me, but the older workers are better," Castro said. "They go slower, but they work all day long. The younger ones start complaining. They say, 'Oh, it's so hot.' Then they climb up a ladder and start texting."
Information from: The Sacramento Bee, http://www.sacbee.com