While you’re browsing the produce at the farmer’s market or grocery store, do you ever stop to think about how it got there? How about where it came from?
A huge percentage of the nation’s produce comes from California. It brings in more than $50 billion in produce yearly. Recent labor shortages have left large amounts of produce out in the field, waiting to be picked. Thousands of dollars of nutritious fruits and vegetables never make it from the farm to the store because there is a huge labor shortage
One farmer named Tony Serrano sees the impact of this in his strawberry fields in Watsonville, California. “When I first started the farm, people were always showing up at the gates begging for work,” Serrano said. “Now, we farmers are the ones who are begging for workers.”
Even when he offered workers twice the wages to pick strawberries than his zucchini, he still had difficulty filling the position. He eventually had to abandon his strawberry crop in favor of the summer squash, which he has a contract with Costo.
This problem is one that many American farmers face. According to John Hollay, senior director of government relations for the United Fresh Produce Association, the labor shortage is the #1 issue in the industry.
Since 2012, it has cost approximately 1.3 billion in lost income. Hollay says, “It’s a shame….We have the crops but not enough workers to harvest them. It should be a crime—the idea that we would let this happen in a nation with our agricultural resources…. Food insecurity is a national security threat. And that is not something I say lightly. A country that can’t provide food for its people is simply not secure.”
His organization along with 70 others signed a letter to President Donald Trump asking for “a lawful path for foreign workers to enter the United States on a nonimmigrant basis.” He says, “”All we are looking for is some sort of legal status for farmworkers. Something that lets employers and workers to go home at night and not worry about an ICE raid.” This includes US workers gaining legal status, improvements on the guest worker program, and no further enforcement laws. “The produce industry does not oppose proper enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws, but to do so without addressing the reality that much of the workforce in agriculture is foreign-born would be devastating to our sector.”
Across the board, industry leaders agree that the scarcity of farmworkers is a big problem. According to the national vice president of a California-based union group named of United Farm Workers, Erik Nicholson, “ “The shortage is a very big deal. Before, farmers could churn through where were 10 others waiting for their job. Now, we’re going through a paradigm shift, moving from a situation where land, water and labor were abundant to where they are becoming scarce.”
The labor shortage affects all crops and locations. From the corn fields of Florida to the apple orchards of Washington, farmers are feeling the effect of the labor crunch. In 2011, workers avoided Georgia because of a new law cracking down on immigrants. The result was that farmers lost about $75 million.
Most of the nation’s produce comes from California and many of the farm workers are born in Mexico. 2/3 are in the country without legal paperwork, and nearly half of those people are farm workers. Another issue is that many of the farm workers are older, and they are unable to perform strenuous physical tasks. A third thing is that they are leaving farm work for more lucrative positions.
According to Oswaldo Cisneros Martinez, a farmworker, conditions make living in the US unappealing. Many are moving back to Mexico because of economic reasons. “The pay is low in California…The rents are high. Two to three families are living in the same house. It is getting impossible to live here now. In the past, it was better.”
Farmers are using technology as well as other methods such as offering workers benefits to try to hold on to their labor force. The decline in farm workers has been felt for the past decade, and many farmers are feeling the pressure of it.
Some American farm companies are moving to Mexico to be able to fill their labor need. According to The Congressional Research Service, before 2015, Americans exported more food to Mexico than they imported. But now that trend is reversed.
All of the nation’s top 10 fruits must be picked by hand, and 7 out of 10 of the most popular vegetables also need to be hand harvested. The produce with stars must be hand picked. We depend on hundreds of thousands of workers to eat, and now there simply isn’t enough of them. 
3. Table grapes*
5. Heads of lettuce*
7. Mixed salad greens
8. Bell peppers*
- California farms produce a lot of food – but what and how much might surprise you, Kurt Snibe, The OCR, July 27, 2017
- Farmers Can’t Find Enough Workers to Harvest Crops—and Fruits and Vegetables Are Literally Rotting in Fields, Barry Estabrook, Eating Well, March 2019
- America has a farm labor shortage. We need a better guest worker program, Zippy Duvall, LA Times, Feb 12, 2019