YUBA CITY, Calif. — Indian American peach farmers in the Yuba/Sutter County region are facing a severe shortage of labor during the critical growing and harvesting season this year, as the supply of foreign workers has been drastically reduced due to the Trump administration’s stricter enforcement of immigration policies.
“Labor is very scarce, and we’re very concerned. All our work is heavily labor intensive,” Karm Bains, whose father Didar Singh Bains is known as the “Peach King of California,” told India-West. “If I had 100 people show up at my door tomorrow, I could give them all jobs through the season,” he said, noting that U.S. workers are not filling the gap in the labor supply.
“Americans don’t want to stand out in the hot sun all day picking fruit,” he said, noting that even though wages are high – roughly $17 to $25 per hour – U.S. workers are scarce.
California leads the nation in food production, generating more than $50 billion in agricultural products. Indian Americans in this region, primarily from Punjab, own an estimated 50,000 acres of land worth approximately $1.3 billion, and grow almost the entire crop of the nation’s canned peaches.
Indian American farmers here also grow almost two-thirds of the nation’s walnuts, almonds, pistachios and dried plums. The latter products are less labor-intensive, as they can be harvested by machine. Peaches, however, must be picked by hand to avoid bruising and damage to the tree.
Bains is in the midst of thinning his peach orchards, an intensive process which requires pulling about half of the dime-sized fruit off his trees, so that the remaining crop can grow a quality size and flavor. Bains has a three-week window in which to finish thinning, and said he currently does not have enough labor to get the job done within the small window of time.
Harvesting – which begins in June, depending on the variety – has just a three-day window in which a peach is perfectly ripe and ready for market, said Bains. He noted that he has several varieties, which ripen at varying times, thus providing work to laborers until about September.
Bains used to have workers who came back every year to work his farm. This year, few have made the risky journey across the border, fearing they will not be able to return to their home country after the season ends, he said.
Bains said almost all of his workers are foreign-born, but have documents to prove their eligibility to work. This year, the fifth-generation farmer is working with labor contractor Manuel Quezada to get the number of field hands he needs to bring his peaches to processors, including Del Monte, Seneca, and Pacific Producers.
Quezada told India-West he is having a hard time recruiting workers this year, and that demand overwhelmingly exceeds supply. In 2015, Quezada placed 1,300 workers on area farms; last year that number dropped by 300.
This year, Quezada predicts he will recruit less than 700 workers.
“The people who were here illegally have gone back home and they can’t come back because the borders are too tight,” said Quezada. He noted that many workers who are legally authorized to remain in the country have also left because of fear of deportation over minor infractions of the law. Those who have remained have found better opportunities outside of agriculture, such as construction and landscaping, he explained.
Workers make about $12 an hour in the Yuba/Sutter area, and about $15 per hour in wine-growing regions such as the Napa Valley, according to Quezada, who only hires workers who are already in the U.S. His workers all have Social Security numbers – even if they are undocumented – and pay federal, state, and Social Security taxes from their paychecks, he said, disputing the myth that such workers pay nothing into the system.
Few of the area’s farmers take advantage of the H-2A program, a temporary visa for foreign agricultural workers. Rich Hudgins, president and CEO of the California Canning Peach Association, told India-West the program is “very bureaucratic.”
Farmers must commit months in advance to have workers arrive on a specific day and leave on a specific day, he said, noting that agricultural products often do not conform to a strict schedule. Farmers must also provide housing to H-2A visa workers, noted Hudgins, adding, however, that farmers are increasingly facing no other choice.
Mechanization is an alternative, but with concerns about quality, said Hudgins, explaining that fruit must be shaken off the tree into a padded catch frame which could cause bruising. Bruised fruit must undergo three hours of transport to processing facilities, which could cause further deterioration, he said.
“We clearly need a supply of foreign-born workers to pick our crops,” stated Hudgins, adding that consumers would likely see an increase in the costs of produce.
He noted that California’s increase in minimum wage – which will rise to $11 per hour next year, and to $15 per hour by 2022 – will also increase mechanization in agriculture, as labor costs rise.
Kulwant Johl, who owns 1,000 acres of orchards in Marysville, Calif., told India-West he may have to resort to using mechanized harvesters this year to bring his peach crop to market.
“I don’t generally like to use them, but I’m keeping them ready,” he said, explaining that shaking a tree cuts down its life span, and may lead to damaged trees with broken branches.
Johl said that though there were no immigration raids in the Yuba/Sutter County region, immigration crack-downs in other areas have scared off potential laborers from his fields. “There is quite a huge shortage of workers this year,” he said. “Every farmer here is concerned about whether they will have enough workers,” added Johl, who usually employs 60 workers during the growing and harvesting season.
All the workers possess green cards and Social Security numbers, regardless of their actual immigration status, said Johl. He predicted that about 40 percent of the agricultural labor force in the region is undocumented.
President Donald Trump met with farmers at the White House April 25, and assured them that his stricter immigration policies were not intended to harm the agricultural labor supply.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agriculture Workers’ Survey reports that about half of the U.S.’s farm workers are undocumented, and two-thirds are foreign-born.