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Illegal Immigration Is Down, Changing the Face of California Farms

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GONZALES, Calif. — It looks like a century-old picture of farming in California: just a few dozen Mexican men on their knees, plucking radishes from the bottom, tying them into bundles. However the crews on Sabor Farms’ radish patch, a couple of mile south of the Salinas River, represent the innovative of change, a revolution in how America pulls food from the land.

For starters, the young men on their knees are working alongside technology unseen even 10 years ago. Crouched behind what looks like a tractor retrofitted with a packing plant, they place bunches of radishes on a conveyor belt inside arm’s reach, which carries them through a chilly wash and delivers them to be packed into crates and delivered for distribution in a refrigerated truck.

The opposite change is more subtle, but no less revolutionary. Not one of the employees are in the US illegally.

Each of those transformations are driven by the identical dynamic: the decline in the availability of young illegal immigrants from Mexico, the backbone of the work force picking California’s crops because the Sixties.

The brand new demographic reality has sent farmers scrambling to usher in more highly paid foreign employees on temporary guest-worker visas, experiment with automation wherever they will and even replace crops with less labor-intensive alternatives.

“Back within the day, you had people galore,” said Vanessa Quinlan, director of human resources at Sabor Farms. Today, not a lot: Some 90 percent of Sabor’s harvest employees come from Mexico on temporary visas, said Jess Quinlan, the farm’s president and Ms. Quinlan’s husband. “We wanted to be sure that we had bodies available when the crop is prepared,” he said.

For all of the anxiety over the newest surge in immigration, Mexicans — who constitute a lot of the unauthorized immigrants in the US and a lot of the farmworkers in California — will not be coming within the numbers they once did.

There are a selection of reasons: The aging of Mexico’s population slimmed the cohort of potential migrants. Mexico’s relative stability after the financial crises of the Eighties and Nineties reduced the pressures for them to depart, while the collapse of the housing bubble in the US slashed demand for his or her work north of the border. Stricter border enforcement by the US, notably through the Trump administration, has further dented the flow.

“The Mexican migration wave to the US has now crested,” the economists Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh wrote.

As a consequence, the overall population of unauthorized immigrants in the US peaked in 2007 and has declined barely since then. California felt it first. From 2010 to 2018, the unauthorized immigrant population within the state declined by some 10 percent, to 2.6 million. And the dwindling flow sharply reduced the availability of young employees to till fields and harvest crops on the low-cost.

The state reports that from 2010 to 2020, the typical variety of employees on California farms declined to 150,000 from 170,000. The variety of undocumented immigrant employees declined even faster. The Labor Department’s most up-to-date National Agricultural Employees Survey reports that in 2017 and 2018, unauthorized immigrants accounted for less than 36 percent of crop employees hired by California farms. That was down from 66 percent, based on the surveys performed 10 years earlier.

The immigrant work force has also aged. In 2017 and 2018, the typical crop employee hired locally on a California farm was 43, based on the survey, eight years older than within the surveys performed from 2007 to 2009. The share of employees under the age of 25 dropped to 7 percent from 1 / 4.

Desperate to search out an alternate, farms turned to a tool that they had largely shunned for years: the H-2A visa, which allows them to import employees for just a few months of the yr.

The visa was created through the immigration reform of 1986 as a concession to farmers who complained that the legalization of thousands and thousands of unauthorized immigrants would deprive them of their labor force, as newly legalized employees would seek higher jobs outside agriculture.

But farmers found the H-2A process too expensive. Under the principles, that they had to offer H-2A employees with housing, transportation to the fields and even meals. And so they needed to pay them the so-called antagonistic effect wage rate, calculated by the Agriculture Department to make sure they didn’t undercut the wages of domestic employees.

Updated 

May 27, 2022, 3:14 p.m. ET

It remained cheaper and easier for farmers to rent the younger immigrants who kept on coming illegally across the border. (Employers must demand documents proving employees’ eligibility to work, but these are fairly easy to fake.)

That’s now not the case. There are some 35,000 employees on H-2A visas across California, 14 times as many as in 2007. Throughout the harvest they crowd the low-end motels dotting California’s farm towns. A 1,200-bed housing facility exclusive to H-2A employees just opened in Salinas. In King City, some 50 miles south, a former tomato processing shed was retrofitted to accommodate them.

“In the US now we have an aging and settled illegal work force,” said Philip Martin, an authority on farm labor and migration on the University of California, Davis. “The fresh blood are the H-2As.”

Immigrant guest employees are unlikely to fill the labor hole on America’s farms, though. For starters, they’re costlier than the largely unauthorized employees they’re replacing. The antagonistic effect wage rate in California this yr is $17.51, well above the $15 minimum wage that farmers must pay employees hired locally.

So farmers are also looking elsewhere. “We reside on borrowed time,” said Dave Puglia, president and chief executive of Western Growers, the lobby group for farmers within the West. “I would like half the produce harvest mechanized in 10 years. There’s no other solution.”

Produce that’s hardy or doesn’t must look pretty is basically harvested mechanically already, from processed tomatoes and wine grapes to mixed salad greens and tree nuts. Sabor Farms has been using machines to reap salad mix for many years.

“Processed food is usually automated,” said Walt Duflock, who runs Western Growers’ Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas, some extent for tech entrepreneurs to satisfy farmers. “Now the trouble is on the fresh side.”

Apples are being grown on trellises for simple harvesting. Scientists have developed genetically modified “high rise” broccoli with long stems to be harvested mechanically. Pruning and trimming of trees and vines is increasingly automated. Lasers have been brought into fields for weeding. Biodegradable “plant tape” full of seeds and nutrients can now be germinated in nurseries and transplanted with enormous machines that just unspool the tape into the sector.

Just a few rows down from the crew harvesting radish bunches at Sabor Farms’ patch, the Quinlans are running a flowery automatic radish harvester they bought from the Netherlands. Operated by three employees, it plucks individual radishes from the bottom and spews them into crates in a truck driving by its side.

And yet automation has limits. Harvesting produce that may’t be bruised or butchered by a robot stays a challenge. A survey by the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology found that about two-thirds of growers of specialty crops like fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts have invested in automation over the past three years. Still, they expect that only about 20 percent of the lettuce, apple and broccoli harvest — and not one of the strawberry harvest — might be automated by 2025.

Some crops are unlikely to survive. Acreage dedicated to crops like bell peppers, broccoli and fresh tomatoes is declining. And foreign suppliers are picking up much of the slack. Fresh and frozen fruit and vegetable imports almost doubled over the past five years, to $31 billion in 2021.

Consider asparagus, a very labor-intensive crop. Only 4,000 acres of it were harvested across the state in 2020, down from 37,000 20 years earlier. The state minimum wage of $15, added to the brand new requirement to pay additional time after 40 hours every week, is squeezing it further after growers within the Mexican state of Sinaloa — where employees make some $330 a month — increased the asparagus acreage almost threefold over 15 years, to 47,000 acres in 2020.

H-2A employees won’t help fend off the cheaper Mexican asparagus. They’re even costlier than local employees, about half of whom are immigrants from earlier waves that gained legal status; a couple of third are undocumented. And capital will not be rushing in to automate the crop.

“There are not any unicorns there,” said Neill Callis, who manages the asparagus packing shed on the Turlock Fruit Company, which grows some 300 acres of asparagus within the San Joaquin Valley east of Salinas. “You’ll be able to’t seduce a V.C. with the chance to unravel a $2-per-carton problem for 50 million cartons,” he said.

While Turlock has automated where it may possibly, introducing a German machine to sort, trim and bunch spears within the packing shed, the harvest remains to be done by hand — hunched employees walk up the rows stabbing on the spears with an 18-inch-long knife.

Today, Mr. Callis said, Turlock is hanging on to the asparagus crop mainly to make sure its labor supply. Providing jobs through the asparagus harvest from February to May helps the farm hang on to its regular employees — 240 in the sector and about 180 within the shed it co-owns with one other farm — for the critical summer harvest of three,500 acres of melons.

Losing its source of low-cost illegal immigrant employees will change California. Other employers heavily reliant on low-cost labor — like builders, landscapers, restaurants and hotels — could have to regulate.

Paradoxically, the changes raking across California’s fields appear to threaten the undocumented local work force farmers once relied on. Ancelmo Zamudio from Chilapa, in Mexico’s state of Guerrero, and José Luis Hernández from Ejutla in Oaxaca crossed into the US once they were barely of their teens, over 15 years ago. Now they live in Stockton, working totally on the vineyards in Lodi and Napa.

They were constructing a life in the US. They brought their wives with them; had children; hoped that they could have the option to legalize their status someway, perhaps through one other shot at immigration reform just like the one in all 1986.

Things to them look decidedly cloudier. “We used to prune the leaves on the vine with our hands, but they brought within the robots last yr,” Mr. Zamudio complained. “They said it was because there have been no people.”

Mr. Hernández grumbles about H-2A employees, who earn more even in the event that they have less experience, and don’t should pay rent or support a family. He worries about rising rents — pushed higher by latest arrivals from the Bay Area. The rule compelling farmers to pay additional time after 40 hours of labor per week is costing him money, he complains, because farmers slashed additional time and cut his workweek from six days to 5.

He worries concerning the future. “It scares me that they’re coming with H-2As and in addition with robots,” he said. “That’s going to take us down.”

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