Western Growers president testifies before House Judiciary Committee

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, testifies in April 2019 before the House Judiciary Subcommittee. Legal status for "our longstanding, reliable, existing workforce and their families" is needed, he said.

Editor's note: The following article is the last of a two-part series on the impact of the foreign-worker shortage on agriculture. This article addresses support of an improved guest-worker program.

About 70 percent of California farmers reported that they struggled to find workers in 2018 compared to 23 percent in 2014, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation. Both the California and American Farm Bureau Federations want a solution that combines a better guest-worker program with a pathway for existing undocumented fieldworkers to obtain legal status.

Western Growers, a major farmer-advocacy organization, recently stated that although they appreciate the Trump administration streamlining the guest worker program, a degree of amnesty for existing workers is necessary. Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, also testified before Congress in April about the contributions of undocumented fieldworkers.

“The majority of those falsely documented, here illegally, however you want to phrase it, pay their state and federal income taxes and contribute to social security without any hope of ever collecting,” he said. “We need legal status for our longstanding, reliable, existing workforce and their families.”

Barring some sort of breakthrough – such as mechanizing delicate harvests or new policy – the outcome may well be a gradual strangulation of many types of “grown-in-the-USA” fresh produce. Farmers who can afford to do so will continue to raise wages to try and attract sufficient workers. The cost will be added to the price of produce at the supermarket. Where possible stores will import more fresh produce to soften the economic blow to consumers.

But for strawberries where labor accounts for half of total production costs, the price per-unit-value – the value before processing – already has increased in the past 10 years from 69 cents to $1.06 per pound. Most of the increase has occurred since 2016.

As production costs increase for strawberries, mushrooms, lettuce, asparagus, and many other fresh fruits and vegetables, some farmers will destroy crops in favor of mass-planting walnuts or other crops that machines can easily harvest. Farmers who can’t afford to raise wages enough will continue to reduce acreage each year, or leave farming.

Scarce water availability in drought-prone California and other factors will be involved, but ultimately farmers are unlikely to invest in crops too expensive for them to grow and for consumers to buy.

Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley, said regardless of their political beliefs, western farmers know they need immigrants. Meaningful immigration reform for farmers and farm workers won’t happen “until something breaks pretty badly – to the point where crops are rotting in the field,” he said.

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Sierra Garcia is an editorial assistant and blog writer for Stanford University's Bill Lane Center for the American West. Visit west.stanford.edu for more information.