As a thousand acres of table grapes approach peak ripeness on his farm near Arvin, grower Rick Deckard says he's more concerned about fruit prices than he is about getting enough farmworkers to do the picking.
But that may soon change.
Worries are mounting that the Central Valley's agricultural industry is falling ever shorter of the experienced labor it needs to bring its produce to market.
Despite wage increases and growing investment in automated harvesting equipment, ag trade groups say a worker shortage threatens farmers' profits. They fear that, over the long term, it will push them toward less labor-intensive crops that, in turn, will raise prices on fruit and vegetables that require experienced field workers.
"I think if we don't solve the problem, (consumers) are definitely going to see more expensive food and more imported food. And, you know, of course, the risk with imported food is that it's not grown to the same food safety standards as food grown in the United States," said Bill Phillimore, executive vice president of Paramount Farming Co.
But for all the urgency and the political pressure for legislation that could allow more farmworkers from Mexico, Deckard said he's not worried. He has already raised his wages by 4 percent to about $8.30 an hour and is considering additional incentives to attract the roughly 400 workers he needs to pick his grapes.
"I'm not too overly concerned at this point," said Deckard. "In two weeks, I might change my mind."
His relative confidence puts him in the minority, according to alarming survey results from the California Farm Bureau Federation. It said 61 percent of farmers surveyed experienced a shortage of temporary workers last year. Some reported that they opted not to harvest part or all of their crop because they lacked sufficient help.
A SHORTAGE OR NOT?
Deckard is not alone in his skepticism. The United Farm Workers union maintains that there is no field labor shortage -- that calls continue to come in from people looking for work in the fields.
"The reality is, there are enough workers. They just don't have documents," UFW spokeswoman Maria Machuca said.
Sometimes, though, the people who show up for work do not measure up to traditional standards, said Bakersfield-area almond farmer Richard Enns.
"Not all these people that are doing these jobs are actually qualified to do them," he said.
Some of the reasons cited for California's farm labor shortage are recent developments, such as hiring in construction, a surge in immigration raids, Mexico's improving economy and violence along the U.S.-Mexican border. Other factors are longer-term, like Mexico's changing demographics, California's relatively high cost of living and growing demand for farm labor in Oregon and Washington.
The point is often made that the shortage is not borne equally among valley farmers -- that it's harder on grape and tree fruit farmers, for instance, than it is on nut growers whose pistachios and almonds don't require as much immediate, hands-on attention.
GIVING OUT RAISES
Some in the industry point to what they see as an obvious solution: Raise wages.
"The reality is, the farmworkers are not stupid. They make economic decisions in life. If there's a crop somewhere that pays decent money, they will go and do that work," said Guadalupe Sandoval, managing director of the roughly 50-member California Farm Labor Contractor Association.
Offering better pay can be difficult for farmers who grow crops with thin profit margins. Others have had little choice, such as members of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, which this year reported raising wages by 10 percent to 15 percent to between $9 and $11 an hour.
The better solution, industry representatives said, is to pass an immigration reform bill like the one being debated in Washington, D.C.
Trade group leaders called on Central Valley congressmen, and specifically House Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, to work out a bipartisan compromise on the bill co-authored and championed by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
The bill being debated in the U.S. Senate, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, would provide a chance at citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million immigrants here without authorization since the end of 2011. Specific provisions benefit agricultural workers and children of immigrants.
The bill proposes tougher border enforcement, including work on a border fence. It would also tighten workplace hiring rules by expanding use of an electronic employment eligibility system. If signed into law, it would be the nation's largest immigration overhaul in more than a quarter century.
"We need a legal and stable workforce," said Barry Bedwell, president of the grape and tree fruit association. "So, our No. 1 issue is immigration reform."
"It's going to be so important that leaders like Rep. McCarthy ... come up with a bill that can be reconciled ... with the Senate version."
In an email June 12, McCarthy declined to state his position on Rubio's bill but asserted the nation's immigration system is "broken" and getting worse. He emphasized the need to secure the border, enforce current laws and find "a real long-term solution to our immigration processes."
The president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Paul Wenger, said the Rubio bill is not perfect but at least it has support from lawmakers in both parties.
"If we don't get this (reform) done by August, we better not even discuss it for six or seven years because it's not going to happen," Wenger said.
But even he wondered how much immigration reform will help farmers in the long term. He said in Mexico -- California's traditional source of farmworkers -- the overall population is aging and having smaller families. Even so, he asserted that immigration reform would help alleviate the labor shortage in the near term.
Sandoval, with the labor contractor association, is not so sure. Although he called immigration reform "better than what we have now," he predicted that such legislation would give immigrants career alternatives other than field work.
"They're going to go into anything but agriculture," he said. "It's hard to work and there are easier ways to work for a living."
He proposed a more radical solution: "I think you need to open up the border. I think you need to have more opportunities for more workers."
COMPETITION IN THE FIELDS
People on the front lines of the search for more farmworkers, the labor contractors themselves, said competition for experienced laborers has gotten tougher.
Wasco labor contractor Hugo Sanchez said many workers have found work in Washington, where wages are better and the cost of living is generally lower. What's more, he said, recent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids have spooked the laborers that remain.
"I look for people and I look for people," he said, adding that "there won't be enough" workers for the grape harvest coming at the end of this month or early July.
Labor contractor Jesus Torres said the very fact that he has been bringing a crew from Fresno all the way to the Lamont area in recent weeks is evidence of the worsening farmworker shortage.
With more than three decades of experience in the industry, he said his farmer clients have helped somewhat by raising wages about 10 percent. But he agreed that a surge in immigration raids under the Obama administration have been a big deterrent.
He suggested fewer restrictions on who's allowed to work here.
"They come to work," he said of Mexican farmworkers. "They're hard workers who come to work."