It’s not easy being a farmer in California’s Central Valley these days. The massive region, which encompasses more than 22,500 square miles, or about 13% of California’s total land area, has long been considered the most productive and fertile agricultural land in the state, and with good reason. But it’s also among the regions hardest hit by the state’s seemingly unending drought, and its farms are arguably the sector of the California economy most reliant on illegal workers. Indeed, according to the University of California Davis, “nearly all farmworkers are immigrants” and “roughly half of them are living here illegally.”
The Central Valley currently produces about 25% of the food eaten in America and grows about 360 different crops, 13 of which are unique to the region. But the Central Valley’s productivity, along with its dependency on illegal labor, is far from news. After all, for decades, wave after wave of undocumented workers have toiled in the Valley’s fields of broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, and grapes, produce which sustains much of the rest of the nation.
Now though, amid the ongoing political battle over the immigration plan Obama announced last fall, the Valley’s illegal farm workers seem to be closer than ever to legal status. This is a threat which farmers in the region find incredibly unnerving. Couple this lingering threat with the fact that many of the current farmworkers scattered throughout the Central Valley are aging rapidly, and it becomes clear why many California producers are veritably shaking in their boots.
Farmers in the Central Valley are particularly dependent on the labor they source from illegal immigrants for a number of reasons, one of which stems from the produce grown in the area. Fruits and vegetables, by nature, require more manpower to produce and harvest than other types of crops, such as the grains and cereals grown throughout the Great Plains. As a result farmworkers are a necessity for commercial operations and, historically, the farms have also played a crucially important role for the illegal workers as well, providing a kind of safe haven away from the prying eyes of law enforcement in the city centers.
Legalization = moving to cities
But if those same farmworkers were to gain legal status, the farmers argue, they would leave the farms for more profitable work in the cities; in factories or construction, perhaps. “We need these people to get our food to market,” said Chuck Herrin, who runs a large company contracting labor for farms in the Central Valley, per the New York Times.
J. Edward Taylor, an economist who has studied the migration of farmworkers from Mexico, and who spoke with the Sacramento Bee, concurs. “Basically we’re running out of low-skilled workers. People simply are not doing farm work to the extent they were doing before,” he said. “The second generation doesn’t do farm work. That’s why they’ve relied on a steady influx of newcomers,” but the newcomers, he adds, “are in dwindling supply.”
Herrin relates a similar story, noting that farmers often “have no choice,” but to hire illegal immigrants, noting that they are simply “not getting people who are coming out of towns and cities to come out and work on farms.” He added that because of the increasingly dangerous nature of crossing the border, newcomers are hard to come by, too. They’re “scared to come, scared of the Border Patrol and deportations and drug lords. They can’t afford to risk all these things,” Herrin said.
Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, who has been pressing Congress to ease entry at the Mexican border so that growers can find a steadier source of labor, says that the current labor shortage is the result of an increasingly impenetrable border. “Now we want people to see the real damage of not doing anything, which is a declining workforce, and it means losing production to foreign countries,” Nassif warned, in an interview with the New York Times.
It’s possible, however, that Central Valley farmers’ current labor force may not be as eager to leave as they are wont to think. Lorena Hernandez, who spoke with NPR, bucks the trend farmers are foreboding. When asked what she might do if granted citizenship Hernandez replied, “I’m still going to be working in the fields. I like it.”
Hernandez says she’s not the only one, either. When she spoke with her friends and co-workers and, she said, “it seems like they’re not interested in any other work. They’re just interested in working in the fields.”
While it’s possible that Hernandez and her co-workers are outliers amongst their peers, there is some research which suggests that more farmworkers might share Hernandez’s attitude than most farmers assume. A national survey of farmworkers conducted for the Department of Labor during the ’80s and ’90s, for instance, found that workers who gain legal status are no more likely to leave farm work than their undocumented peers, though admittedly, the study is out-dated.
Rich Mines, who conducted the survey for the DOL and who also spoke with NPR, says that he thinks farmers are scapegoating legalization when the real cause of their labor shortage lies elsewhere. He says that those farmworkers who leave, leave “because they can’t make a living at it.” Whether or not they’re legal, he says, is just “not that relevant.”