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Farm wages rise as labor supply tightens

It's hard work, but Joan Ibarra gladly harvests bok choy eight hours a day in the Bakersfield sun.

Competition for farmworkers has gotten so tough lately that the 19-year-old now earns $12 per hour, plus a bonus for high productivity — more than he has ever made in his six years working local fields.

Just the same, he's thinking about leaving the industry to go work at a local lube shop. It's not just a passion for cars that's driving him away.

"Obviously, over there you can get promotions, and over here you can’t really get a promotion,” he said.

Situations like his could soon present a real challenge to Kern County agriculture. With fewer people to do harvesting and other skilled farm work, local growers may soon face steeper labor costs.

People across Kern's ag industry say a federal immigration crackdown, competition from farmers to the north and improvement in the general economy threaten to cut into the profitability of local growing operations.

The severity of the labor shortage depends on the crop and the time of year. And fortunately or not, difficult weather conditions last winter kept some harvests small, which has limited local demand for farmworkers.

Even so, growers like Exeter-based Sun Pacific Shippers have had to increase wages to attract the highly skilled workers they need.

President Al Bates said next year's outlook isn't so good.

"It's one more variable in an already challenging work environment," he said. "Hopefully, we'll figure out a way to continue to have enough people to harvest the crop that we grow."

The president of the Nisei Farmers League, Manuel Cunha, has grown quite frustrated. He said other industries — construction, restaurants, manufacturing — are trying to lure the same pool of workers, which puts upward pressure on wages. More troublesome, he said, is the federal push for stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

He said when federal authorities contact Central Valley farm contractors and ask them to produce documentation of their workers' right to work in the country, between a third and half of the employees flee.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time the workers never come back. It's a disaster," he said. "I will tell you, I have never seen bigger destruction for employers."

An option that has become increasingly popular in recent years is the H-2A federal guest worker program. It allows employers who can demonstrate need to bring in workers temporarily from countries like Mexico to work in U.S. agriculture.

The number of H-2A guest workers coming to California rose 400 percent between 2012 and 2017, from about 3,000 to 15,000.

It's a complex and expensive process. Nat DiBuduo, president of Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, said employers use the H-21 program when they're fed up.

"That's the only alternative (some growers) have today," he said. "If that's what they have to do, that's what they have to do."

Armando Elenes, third vice president of the United Farm Workers union, asserted that some farmers have only themselves to blame. While growers further north in the Central Valley have responded to tight labor conditions by raising pay levels, there has been a general resistance to doing so in Kern.

If raises are being given out, he said, it's because farmworkers are beginning to realize the value of their work.

"They want to be able to (say), 'What am I going to get for my work?'" Elenes said.

Workers could simply pack up and head north to Salinas or Napa Valley, where wages are much higher, in the range of $17 per hour.

But for many, such a move is too disruptive. Lamont vegetable worker Juan Salazar said the people he works with would not consider leaving the area, even if it means more money.

"They have their families and houses here," he said. ""They don't (want to) go anywhere else."

Fernando Rivera, who took a moment to chat at Lamont's Weedpatch Supermarket after work Thursday in local mandarin orchards, said he gets paid minimum wage and receives only minimum health benefits.

"The pay is what it is. It doesn't change," he said.

Rivera said he has no plans to move north in search of better pay. On the contrary, he said, "I'm thinking of returning to Mexico."

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