California growers complain of farm worker shortage

Eve Troeh Sep 14, 2012

Jeff Horwich: All summer farmers faced a shortage of water. Now some are dealing with a shortage of labor to bring in the harvest. We sent Marketplace’s Eve Troeh to a California mushroom farm to glean some more insights.

Eve Troeh: Escondido, Calif., is home to citrus and avocado groves. And Mountain Meadow Mushrooms.

Gary Crouch: We grow your white, portobello, crimini, shiitake mushrooms.

Gary Crouch grows year-round in long, cinder block rooms. It’s dark and humid inside. Music keeps pickers company, as they pluck firm white buttons from stacked beds of soil. With a full staff, Crouch gets 20,000 pounds a day. This year, he says he’s left 100,000 pounds to rot.

Crouch: Six months ago, we got visited by ICE.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Crouch: Most of our employees are gone.

Most of them from Mexico, people who’d been on his payroll 10 years or more. They paid taxes. They had documents on file, he says. But the immigration visit scared them off. Crouch scrambled to hire locals, for the same pay: $10 to $15 an hour.

Crouch: Some of them say, oh yeah I can do that, I’m used to hard work. They’ll last a day, maybe two days, generally less than a week.

Philip Martin: Maybe $20 an hour would induce some people to go to work.

Philip Martin studies farm labor at UC Davis.

Martin: But well before we got to $20 an hour, machines would be developed to harvest these commodities, or we would be importing them.

Another way to drum up labor? Make the work easier. Charlie Wolk with the California Avocado Commission wants growers to lower their trees — no ladders to climb.

Charlie Wolk: You know if we get a tree that you can reach the fruit, it’s much easier to teach somebody how to do that.

“But why bother?” say many growers. Just let the people who will do the work come here to do it. They want a guest worker program with Mexico.

At Mountain Meadow Mushrooms, Gary Crouch shows me the hardest job. After room’s been picked, workers don headlamps, and shovel out tons of dirt.

Crouch: It’s hard, hard work.

As they rinse off, it’s clear they’re not from Mexico. They’re from Burma. Refugees, hired with the help of social services. Crouch says other growers are watching closely, to see if these workers stick around.

I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

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