FRESNO — The nectarine came off the branch with a rustle of leaves and a snap of the stem. The flesh was soft and light, with a tangy aftertaste that was only slightly sour.
It was a few days from being perfectly ripe -- and that, said Central Valley labor contractor Fred Garza, was a problem. It might have been too ripe to make the market in time.
"The harvest started getting away from us. We should have 25 men here, but we only have six," Garza said while standing in a nectarine orchard last month.
"I've lost two jobs this season because I couldn't get people -- any people," said Garza, who generally employs about 2,500 men. This summer, he has only 1,500 workers. "And I'm one of the largest labor suppliers around here. If I'm having trouble, everybody's having trouble."
California's farm labor contractors and growers said they struggle to find enough workers for the summer harvests because tougher border enforcement and competition from the booming construction industry and other sectors are shrinking agriculture's primary workforce: undocumented Mexican immigrants.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 53% of the nation's agricultural workforce is unsanctioned foreign laborers. California growers say that the number could be as high as 90% in the Central Valley and that they cannot survive without a steady supply.
Farm labor activists who oppose the hiring of illegal workers say farmers' dependence on foreign labor stems from their refusal to pay workers higher wages and benefits. They cite unemployment rates exceeding 20% in rural towns such as Huron and Mendota, suggesting that the problem isn't so much the supply of workers but their willingness to work under the current wages and conditions.
"We have very limited information about what would happen if you raised farmworker wages to $10 an hour in California," says Ron Strochlic, interim executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis. "Certainly, there would be some folks who would not be willing to do farm work, no matter what. But worker surveys have also showed that more people would be attracted at a suitable level of pay."
Growers dismiss this argument. "Most Americans think agricultural work is beneath them," said David Jackson, owner of Family Tree Farms, a 4,000-acre fruit orchard in Reedley. Jackson, whose workforce is down about 5% this year, said he can't pay workers any more than he does.
"I use labor contractors who are probably paying their men the minimum wage. The contractor charges me more because they have to pay increased workers' compensation and other benefits," he said. "So workers are getting paid $6.75, but $9.50 is actually coming out of my pocket. I'm paying $4,000 an acre for labor. Eighty percent of my expenses is labor."
One major factor in growers' recruitment woes is stepped-up enforcement at the border.
The San Diego office of the Border Patrol reported that agents have apprehended 103,458 people trying to cross illegally from Mexico into California in the past year, 15% fewer than in the previous year. Border agents stationed at El Centro said their apprehension rate was down by one-third.
Border Patrol spokesman Sean Isham said electronic sensors, increased staffing and better intelligence are deterring would-be border crossers.
"We're just not seeing as many of them," he said.
Migrant workers also report more difficulty getting across the border -- including having to pay more to human smugglers, known as coyotes.
"About 100 people in my group got caught the first time we tried. They held us all day and then let us go," said Gilberto Guerrero. "I got in the next day. The coyotes are charging a lot more now, and here we're not getting enough to send to our families."
Some people who work in the fields are starting to question whether the job is worth the trouble. Eduardo Mejia, a 48-year-old native of Mexico's Michoacan state, said that after one failed attempt and several days of exhausting travel, he crossed the border into Yuma, Ariz., two months ago to work in the Central Valley.
Mejia paid $2,000 to a coyote to help him cross, about $500 more than he paid a year ago.
Because his employer is short-staffed, Mejia is getting plenty of work -- 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. But it still isn't enough to pay his debts.
"After you pay the coyote, the driver to take you to work every day, rent, food -- when you're done, you have nothing left," Mejia said. "When I pay my coyote, I will go back home. It's too hard here."
The farmers' hiring difficulties are in large part pushing Washington to place the thorny issue of immigration policy reform at the center of the national agenda. The Bush administration has signaled its desire to find common ground on an issue that threatens to split the Republican Party and alienate Latino voters during upcoming congressional elections.