FRESNO — Fears of a potential farm labor shortage have caused San Joaquin Valley growers to boost wages to as much as $10 an hour this year to attract and keep workers for the harvest season.
With the farm-labor pool tight and crops ready to be picked, growers are scrambling to secure their supply of workers.
"It is getting very competitive out there and employers are having to offer incentives to find the labor they need," said Oscar Ramos, a grape farmer and Kingsburg-based farm-labor contractor. "And one of those incentives is higher wages."
Farmers and agriculture industry leaders say wages have risen $1 to $1.50 an hour this year compared with last year, or as much as 12 percent. Among valley farmers, hourly wages are hovering at $9 to $10 an hour, which is higher than California's minimum wage of $8.
Wages could go higher. During the peak of the harvest season in September, the average hourly earnings for San Joaquin Valley farmworkers rose to $12.09.
For workers such as Jose Aceves, the higher wage is a welcome relief. Aceves and a crew of about 20 workers harvested peaches for HMC Farms in the Selma area recently.
"We really appreciate being paid more," Aceves said. "Because we know how hard it is right now for some farms to find enough workers. There just aren't as many people as there used to be."
Experts say tighter border security, increased smuggling costs for immigrants and drug-related violence are contributing to fewer people coming to the United States from Mexico, a longtime source of undocumented workers for valley farmers.
Adding a wrinkle to the shortage of workers is the fear of immigration sweeps.
Last week, agriculture officials, farmers and law enforcement came together to quell rumors that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were rounding up people.
Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, said he spoke to federal officials, who assured him that no raids are taking place. Cunha said the rumors couldn't have come at a worse time.
Rumors aren't helping
"We already have a labor shortage and this only exacerbates the problem," Cunha said. "People are staying home because they are afraid."
Farmers knew the shortage was going to get worse before it got better. After dealing with fewer workers last year, they were spurred to take quick action this season.
"What we are seeing is the concern farmers have that they may not get the workers they need, or that they lose them to someone else," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "And it is already happening."
Bedwell said he heard from a grape grower who lost workers to another farmer who was paying higher wages.
"Unfortunately, that is part of the free-market system," Bedwell said. "Workers have the ability to go somewhere else, if they can make more money."
Farm-labor contractors say they also are seeing more demand for labor.
The higher-than-normal temperatures have accelerated the ripening of many labor-intensive crops all at once, including cherries, blueberries and tree fruit.
Harold McClarty, president of HMC Farms, increased his workers' wages by $1, raising their hourly wage from more than $8 to more than $9.
McClarty said it's critical to have enough workers for early-season fruit, especially when prices in the marketplace can be higher.
"The timing is so important because if you miss one day, you could lose your marketing opportunity," McClarty said. "It is crazy."
What also is frustrating for farmers is that they generally can't pass along the higher cost of labor to consumers.
Small farmers such as Mike Naylor say they face the challenge of not being able to compete with larger growers who are paying $10 and higher for tree-fruit harvesters.
Offer what they can
This year, Naylor increased his hourly wage from $8.10 an hour to $9 an hour. He can't afford more, but he tries to provide his workers with other benefits, such as giving them lunch when they work Sundays.
"I know it is a minor fringe benefit, but I am doing what I can to make sure my workers will stay," Naylor said.
Lupe Sandoval, managing director of the Sacramento-based California Farm Labor Contractor Association, does not think farm-labor wages will rise substantially higher. Nor does he think offering higher wages will result in others applying for farm jobs.
"Just because you offer someone $20 an hour does not mean you are going to get a good worker," Sandoval said. "There are still a lot of people that will work for $8 an hour at McDonald's than in the fields for more money."