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West Coast tree fruit producers dodged a bullet this year. In Washington, hailstorms that shrank the crops and cool fall weather that extended apple harvest enabled most growers to get their fruit picked despite a labor shortage, according to Dan Fazio, director of employment services at the Washington State Farm Bureau.

And in California, a summer heat wave reduced crop yields and labor needs.

But the Farm Bureau expects labor shortages will continue in the future, putting the squeeze on small growers.

“I think it’s going to get worse,” Fazio said. “Everyone is saying the same thing: The workers are harder to get, and when they get here, there’s more negotiating. They’re here for two days, and they’re gone. Crews are about 80 percent of what they were.”

The problem, Fazio says, is that nowadays no one wants to be a migrant worker. Those who have worked in agriculture are seeking jobs in other sectors, such as construction, and there’s going to be more scrutiny of workers by the Department of Homeland Security, and more pressure to get illegal workers out of the country, Fazio said.

But coming to the United States legally under a guest-worker program has appeal for people still in Mexico, who see it as an opportunity to earn many times more than the $8 a day they’re making at home.

Travel expenses

Under the H-2A program, which is specifically for agriculture, employers must pay travel expenses and supply housing. However, the general unskilled guest-worker program H-2B does not require that, Fazio said.

“The recruiters in Mexico tell us that they have lines of people wanting to sign up for H-2A programs. One of their biggest problems is this kind of under-the-table kind of people who are trying to rip off the workers to get them onto a list for H-2A.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Web site shows that a total of 48,366 foreign guest workers came into the country through the H-2A program in 2005, of which more than 60 percent went to the eastern United States.

Fazio said most H-2A workers go to tobacco growers. In the past, West Coast farmers said the program was too difficult to comply with, but that’s changing now that the labor force is shrinking.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, said growers view the H-2A program as an insurance policy to ensure they have an adequate number of people, though it takes a lot of budgeting and strategic planning to do it successfully. Growers have found that raising pay rates in the hope of attracting more local workers is not the answer. “It yields some more people, but not necessarily enough people,” he said. “You can’t afford that instability if you’re an employer with a perishable crop. You need to know you have a certain number of people for a certain time.”

But growers using the program face a number of challenges. The employer has to adjust to new people they’ve never worked with before, and there can be productivity issues. Also, the employer is likely to be under scrutiny for compliance from state agencies and labor advocates. Providing housing can be an enormous logistical challenge for operations that employ hundreds of workers, and the program requires that the employer hire and house local people who apply for jobs during the first half of the contract period, even if sufficient guest workers are there.

It’s also important to make sure the guest workers are happy and feel good about the program, so they’ll use it again, he added.

Gempler thinks the program can be successful and affordable, as long as the workers are productive and apple prices are good. The advantage is that they have a legal work force—and that’s a benefit to the workers, too.

Many of the workers who are in the United States would like to go back to Mexico during the winter holidays, he said, but if they’re using false documents to get jobs it’s not easy to get across the border. “This is better for everybody. They don’t have to take risks with criminal smugglers. They can get a visa with a passport and come across the border like a human being on public transportation.”

California

In California, few growers have participated in the H-2A program, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The supply of agricultural labor during the 2006 season was “very tight” said L. George Daniels III, executive vice president of the Farm Employers Labor Service, a subsidiary of the California Farm Bureau. A midsummer record setting heat wave reduced yields of nearly all crops, which helped to reduce labor needs, he said. However, some isolated areas, like northern California’s Lake County, were hit hard by a lack of farmworkers.

Pear growers in Lake County, who watched their fruit ripen on the tree and fall to the ground before workers showed up for harvest, lost about 30 percent of their crop overall, estimated Steve Hajik, Lake County agricultural commissioner. Pear growers lost around 12,000 tons of fruit, which, based on 2004 prices, totaled more than $4.2 million, he said.

Few California growers have housing for their seasonal workers, a major stumbling block when considering the H-2A program, Daniels said in a telephone interview. Growers also shun the program because they fear confrontation with the California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal services advocate.

“With legislation in the air in the form of the AgJOBSs bill, growers still believe there’s a chance something will happen in Congress,” he said.

Daniels paints a gloomy picture for the farm-labor situation next season. If crop yields are normal, he predicts, “It’s going to be terrible.”