More than 11,000 foreign guest workers like Betancourt were approved last year to harvest the lettuce, fruit and vegetables for California’s $47-billion agricultural industry — a fivefold increase from 2011, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of U.S. Labor Department data.
If this year’s hiring pace holds, that number will soar even higher.
Consumer tastes for fresh strawberries and leaf lettuce — two of the state’s most stubbornly labor-intensive crops — have driven the boom along a coastal corridor from the Salinas Valley in Monterey County through the Oxnard Plain in Ventura County, according to the Times analysis. In the Santa Maria Valley alone, the number of agricultural guest workers catapulted from six sheepherders in 2012 to more than 2,000 laborers last year.
If growers have their way, they will get even more under the visa program known as H-2A and face fewer barriers, delays and regulations.