The farmers who grow most of the nation's winter vegetable crop say they won't have enough workers -- legal or otherwise -- to harvest all the produce when the season hits high gear next month.
Growers in the winter farm belt that stretches east from California's arid Imperial Valley to Yuma County in Arizona will fill barely half the 50,000 field hand positions needed to gather the region's tons of ripening produce, according to Western Growers, a trade group whose members account for 90% of the nation's winter lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables.
"Come January, we could see lettuce rotting in the fields because there will be no one to pick it," said Jon Vessey, who farms 8,000 acres near El Centro.
Growers blame more frequent patrols and raids targeting illegal workers in agriculture, tighter border enforcement and the migration of undocumented workers to better paying or less physically demanding trades.
The effect on consumers, who rarely pay attention to the source of their produce, is negligible so far. But Tom Nassif, chief executive of Irvine-based Western Growers, said the squeeze threatened the continued availability of American-grown winter produce and the U.S. jobs of packers, farm equipment providers and industry suppliers.
The field hand shortage, also seen during other harvests this year, underscores the need for comprehensive immigration reform that includes an "effective" guest worker program that gives foreign citizens permission to work in the U.S. agriculture industry, Nassif said.
"Our crops are going to be harvested by a foreign workforce either here or somewhere else," Nassif said. "So are we going to export all the other jobs affiliated with farming just because we aren't willing to have a guest worker program?"
But the Capitol Hill lobbying efforts of Nassif and other Southwest agricultural interests -- they want at least a temporary guest worker program to see farmers through the coming harvest -- have run afoul of some Republicans and border control activists who view any guest worker program as a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
There are at least 6.3 million undocumented workers in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. As many as 8 in 10 farmworkers are illegal residents; "they all come with documents, but most of those documents turn out to be false," Nassif said. Other big employers of illegal workers include construction, where many former farmworkers have migrated because of higher wages, and the hotel and casino industry.
"Our industry has always been honest about the fact that we have so many illegal workers," Nassif said. "What we want is a mechanism to have a legal workforce."
Disagreements over undocumented workers have divided Arizona's two GOP senators. Sen. Jon Kyl wants to require those here illegally to return to their home countries before applying for participation in a guest worker program while Sen. John McCain has sided with farming interests and would allow undocumented workers who participate in a guest worker program to stay in the United States and apply for permanent residency or citizenship after paying fines and satisfying other requirements.
"The problem with guest worker programs is that they don't work," said Phil Martin a farm labor economist at UC Davis. "The people don't return home." The market-based solution, Martin said, would be to raise wages to make the jobs more attractive.
Some farmers are raising what they pay to well above the minimum wage that most of these jobs once brought. Vessey said he had increased his base pay and his piece-work rate to $10 to $12 an hour, about the starting wage for construction workers.
Elsewhere, farmers are offering bonuses of $50 a day for each full week worked, Nassif said. And in the California portion of the winter growing region, farmworker wages can approach $15 an hour depending on how quickly individuals harvest. Many get health and other benefits through corporate employers or a program operated by Western Growers.
But farmers say other market forces limit how high they can raise wages and still stay in business. Foreign competition and the supermarket industry consolidation are leaving growers with fewer buyers and less leverage over what they can charge.
As of last week, winter growers were collecting 19 cents for a head of iceberg lettuce that was selling for $1.29 in Southern California grocery stores, the trade group said. The return for farmers is down from 34 cents during the same week a year ago, when grocers were charging 88 cents for the lettuce.
And even if growers could offer better pay, it's not clear that many workers would want to do the arduous labor of pulling vegetables out of the ground.
"People will do a lot of things before they work on the farm," said Bart Fisher, who has 2,000 acres of winter vegetables near Blythe, Calif. "It is hard work and unattractive to most people."