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Unintended consequences: Fewer undocumented workers could mean fewer farm workers in California

by Bob Morris, published

Will California be going the way of Georgia, which recently passed a get-tough law against illegal immigrants only to discover crops were rotting in the fields? Georgia seemed to be well-intended in driving undocumented workers out of the state only to find - get ready for this shocker - that was exactly what happened. Farm workers vanished from the state, and the state was short 11,000 agricultural jobs. 

In a truly desperate move, Georgia decided to hire unemployed criminals who are on probation to pick the crops.  

     "If you're strong enough to do this work, you're good, as long as you don't show up stoned or drunk or pregnant," said the president of their Agricultural Council perhaps unmindful that workers need to have experience and be ready for extremely strenuous work.

I'm guessing that city dwellers on probation for marijuana might not make the best of farm workers.  Not surprisingly, most of the probationers gave up quickly and were much less productive than skilled farm workers.  By the way, peaches are the worst crop to pick says an ex-farm worker friend. The fuzz makes you itch and gets in your eyes. Georgia has lots of peaches.

Could this same type of fiasco happen in California too? While we certainly don't have immigration laws as Draconian as Georgia, controls at the border have gotten much stricter with the result being fewer illegal immigrants crossing over into the States. 

California produces half of the vegetables and fruits for the country. Some in the agriculture business say the labor market is getting tight, with fewer workers available, especially in the Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys, with work crews much smaller than normal.  Others say a shortage may be coming during the peak harvest season in August and September.

But here's the astonishing part. Both the United Farm Workers and the growers admit that the vast bulk of farm workers are undocumented.  Wendy Fink-Weber, spokesperson for Western Growers, says "It's a hard thing to get farmers to talk about even though we admit that 70 percent of our workforce as a whole is improperly documented." Houston, I'd say we have a problem here, or at least a major disconnect. Who will pick the crops if undocumented workers disappear or are driven away?

Some say they do work that most Americans won't do. There may be some truth in this, but most Americans aren't up to the physical demands of the job, which involves stooping or sitting on one's haunches for hours a day picking produce. Plus, they don't have the experience and might not live in agricultural areas.  So, for any number of reasons, they aren't qualified or available for the job. That's why farm workers are often migrants. They travel to wherever the harvest is.  But the problem in California is that many of them are undocumented and there are no replacements for them.  If the undocumented workers all went away, crops would likely rot in California fields too.

We could of course recruit California legislators to work in the fields. A bit of good honest labor might do them good and would be a bracing change from their current lollygagging around the legislative chambers passing fictitious budgets. But seriously, how does California balance the real need to control and manage immigration with the reality that the crops need to be picked and undocumented workers are often the ones doing it?

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