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Fields of dreams? 

Central Coast farmers and farmworkers talk about immigration, and their hopes that a broken system will finally be reformed

Victor left Mexico for the United States when he was 17 years old.

His only contact was a friend of a friend who could help him get a job in the fields in Santa Maria, more than 2,000 miles from his home in Oaxaca, a southern state of Mexico that’s one of the most impoverished areas in the country—and, not coincidentally, an area from which many local Mexican immigrants come. 

click to enlarge PICKER ASSIST :  Massive hydraulically driven tractors assist strawberry pickers at a field in Guadalupe. The machines keep pace with the workers, which increases their efficiency because they don’t have to run the length of the row to deliver their full boxes. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PICKER ASSIST : Massive hydraulically driven tractors assist strawberry pickers at a field in Guadalupe. The machines keep pace with the workers, which increases their efficiency because they don’t have to run the length of the row to deliver their full boxes.

That was 10 years ago. He went from Oaxaca to Altar, a border town frequently used as an immigrant staging ground. From there, he left on a Tuesday afternoon and trekked across the Sonoran Desert. By Thursday, he was in Santa Maria. At the time, dangers of violence or getting captured by the border patrol were lower. It was post-9/11, and a time of heightened security, yes. But the Department of Homeland Security was still young, and new policies had yet to affect the U.S.-Mexico border as extensively as they eventually would.

Victor* became a farmworker in Santa Maria. It wasn’t long before he met a woman named Claudia, who also was from Oaxaca and also worked in the fields. They fell in love, were married, and had a daughter named Lupita. The two settled down, while continuing to work primarily in the strawberry fields. When Claudia was 22, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She received medical care, but after several years of treatment failed to yield positive results, her oncologist told her there was nothing more they could do. The then-25-year-old Claudia made the decision to return home and bring Lupita with her. She wanted to spend time with her family—she hadn’t seen her mother in eight years—and wanted to teach Lupita their native language, Mixteco. A year after her return, Claudia’s condition worsened, and Victor went home to be with her during her final days. It was the first time Victor had returned to Mexico since immigrating to the United States. As the holiday season approached, Claudia’s battle with cancer came to an end. She was 26. 

A few months later, Victor made his way back to Santa Maria. He knew crossing the border wasn’t going to be as simple as it was eight years earlier. He flew to Tijuana, where he arranged travel with a coyote, the term used for people who smuggle people across the border, and traveled to Altar. The coyote wanted $3,500 to cross the border—a good deal—to be paid upon arrival. The group crossed without incident and arrived at a safe house in Phoenix. Once there, transportation to Santa Maria was arranged, but Victor had an uneasy feeling that they would be arrested and he fled.

After he disappeared, the coyote used a contact number Victor had provided to call repeatedly, at all hours, to demand payment. A few days later, Victor made it back to Santa Maria, where he still works picking strawberries. Lupita, a legal resident who returned separately, is now 5. 

Victor stands a bit taller than 5 feet, is soft-spoken, friendly, and curious. When he understood a question asked in English by a reporter before it was translated to Spanish, he answered with a yes or no. He tells his story as if it’s not unique, but rather one you hear from other immigrants all the time. This is a story too familiar to the people who aren’t able to get proper documents or visas, but come to this country anyway, determined to find a better life. This is what millions of people have endured to cross the border and arrive at the Land of the Free. And once they arrive, they’re considered illegal.

The majority of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are Latino. Of those, more than half are from Mexico, with others from Central and South America. In the last 20 years, immigration from these countries has increased dramatically. 

Significant populations are also coming from the Philippines, Vietnam, China, India, Cuba, and Jamaica. In Mexico, a growing wealth disparity, staggering unemployment, new trade pacts matched with political corruption, and a draconian drug war have led to an escalation of violence where drug cartels have increased the territory they control, especially regions along the border. Meanwhile, in the last decade, the United States has significantly increased its border security and immigration enforcement within its borders, even creating a new agency to do so.

All this has led to a very recent decrease in the influx of people immigrating here illegally—as was intended—but it also has begun to create problems for businesses depending on that once-reliable stream of labor. That, in turn, has changed the tone of the dialogue surrounding immigration, especially as these crackdowns have begun to threaten a sacred cow of the United States of America: agriculture. 

Creating a pathway

The last significant comprehensive immigration law reform happened almost 30 years ago. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 has undergone various changes since then, the most significant of which is the enhancement of border security and feet-on-the-ground enforcement. 

Similar to a current bill on the table—the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, or S.B. 744—IRCA paired increased enforcement with legal pathways and amnesty. Enforcement included making it a crime for employers to knowingly hire workers without legal documents, and amnesty came in the form of granting permanent residence status, as well as temporary worker programs such as the agriculture-specific H2-A visa. In years that followed its passage, there were no shortages of problems with IRCA, and stakeholders were quick to recommend changes.

Since IRCA, the last major attempt at comprehensive immigration reform came in 2007 via a bill that was an integrated version of various bits of legislation submitted in recent years. It attracted both bipartisan support and criticism and inspired a storm of debate; following a string of modifications, it was effectively rendered un-passable. 

In the last decade, as immigration numbers have increased, so has enforcement. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was created as a division of the post-9/11 agency Department of Homeland Security, and began conducting raids in communities with large immigrant populations and in brick-and-mortar workplaces where undocumented workers were suspected of working. The U.S. Border Patrol, under the DHS’s Customs and Border Protection, has also been beefed up.

A January 2013 report by the Migration Policy Institute found that the United States spends more on border enforcement than it does on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined—nearly $18 billion in 2012. That’s approximately 24 percent higher than collective spending for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. 

Heightened border enforcement has begun to make its mark on the numbers, however, which continue to increase, but at a far slower rate than at the 1990s’ peak.

But that’s not the only reason for the change. As far as Mexico is concerned, at least, the economy is improving in some sectors, families are shrinking, and, following a global trend, more people are moving to cities—especially younger people who are seeking an education and are less attracted to the farming lifestyle. Still, the border plays a major role in deterrence; some who would otherwise come to California for work simply aren’t. 

Some states have already begun to realize the effects of current immigration policy in their supplies of labor. In 2011, Alabama passed a law modeled after Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070, which mandated government agencies to check a person’s status. Georgia enacted a similar law. After the laws passed, much of the states’ immigrant population fled, some farmworkers leaving harvests to rot.

According to reports from a number of affected states, the ensuing labor shortages resulted in hundreds of millions, if not into the billions, of lost dollars. 

What the industry has long understood—and what the Washington beltway is beginning to admit—is that increased border enforcement needs to be paired with legal ways for workers to enter the country.

Hung out to dry 

Ryan Talley, partner at Talley Farms in Arroyo Grande, is a third-generation farmer. His grandfather started the farm in 1938. Today they produce peppers, lettuce, Napa cabbage, cilantro, spinach, and brussels sprouts. They also grow organic vegetables, avocados, and lemons, among other things, and have a sister operation, Talley Vineyards.

The farm has more than 100 full-time, year-round employees—many of whom live on the Talleys’ property—with a total workforce that can balloon up to 250 workers during peak season, which runs August to November, when the peppers and other fall crops are producing. To handle these peaks, the Talleys augment their work force with the help of two contractors who provide the supplemental labor force to harvest their 1,200 acres of farmland. 

In the last few years, it’s been harder to secure enough seasonal workers during these months, Talley told New Times.

“Last year we were down 20 percent as far as labor was concerned,” he said. “We lost some peppers in the ground that we weren’t able to harvest. We weren’t able to weed and do some of the hand labor that we normally do, and we didn’t look as sharp as we usually do, because we had to choose between weeding and harvesting.” 

Farmers across the Central Coast have seen similar labor shortages. This has meant some crop loss—usually minimal—but growers have mostly been adjusting in anticipation that when the peak season hits, there won’t be enough hands for the harvest.

click to enlarge CUT AND PACK:  Napa cabbage is harvested at Talley Farms in Arroyo Grande. This crop is one of the most demanding on farmworkers to pick, according to Ryan Talley. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • CUT AND PACK: Napa cabbage is harvested at Talley Farms in Arroyo Grande. This crop is one of the most demanding on farmworkers to pick, according to Ryan Talley.

This could mean planting different varieties of a crop or different crops altogether, reducing total acreage planted, mechanizing, or shifting and extending harvest schedules. A field that took a day to harvest last year might take a day and a half. Some local growers chose not to plant certain fields, and instead leased them out to other growers. 

“We are shying away and maybe cutting back on some of the acreage that we grow on a more labor-intensive crop, and filling that in with something that doesn’t require as much labor,” Talley said. “We’re trying to get as mechanized as we possibly can, and we’re looking at ways to replace people with machines. That’s in direct correlation with labor shortages, and also to become more efficient.” 

But the advantages of mechanization are limited. According to Talley, commodities for fresh markets—fruits and vegetables that are picked in the same shape in which they’ll be sold (as opposed to grains, nuts, and other crops)—can only see so much mechanization. The crops are delicate and must remain shelf-ready, and in most cases, a machine can’t replace a skilled worker with two hands and a sharp knife.

This area is no special case; the entire state’s agriculture industry has seen a labor shortage, especially since 70 percent of farmworkers in California and Arizona are undocumented, according to the Western Growers Association. Last year, the California Farm Bureau Federation conducted a survey of its members, publishing the results in a 2012 report titled “Walking the Tightrope: California Farmers Struggle With Employee Shortages.” The report compared non-labor-intensive crops and labor-intensive crops, and 61 percent of all respondents reported experiencing worker shortages. Of those with labor-intensive crops, 71 percent saw shortages.

The report states that although widespread crop losses didn’t occur in 2012, 19 percent of the farmers responding to the survey reported planting fewer acres, not harvesting a portion of their crop, or giving up leased land because of a lack of available harvest help.

On the Central Coast, adapting to the trend has put a strain on the industry. For Greg France, one of the largest strawberry producers in San Luis Obispo County and the Santa Maria Valley, it has meant some tough decisions. This year he chose not to plant 120 of his 400 acres, he said, instead leasing to a vegetable grower. 

“When we plant, we consider what we think how much labor we’ll have,” France said of his Santa Maria-based company, Mar Vista Berry. “We are really cautious; we don’t want to over-plant.”

France explained that strawberries are very expensive to grow, and harvesting requires more workers per acre than do vegetables, making the crop especially sensitive to a tight supply of labor. When the strawberries are in peak, pickers work seven long days a week, going over every acre twice a week, getting what they can. 

Like many crops grown on the Central Coast, the season does extend most of the year, however, allowing for some flexibility in management. Strawberries can now produce for up to 10 months, and that encourages many workers to stay put and helps growers maintain some consistency. Workers may stay with a grower or contractor year round; many may go from lettuce to strawberries, and when the strawberries in Santa Maria tail off, they may go to Watsonville, which has a later season, or to harvest grapes or other crops. Still, France depends on a 30 to 35 percent transient labor workforce in peak seasons.

That’s the tricky part, according to Richard Quandt, general counsel for the Guadalupe-based Grower-Shipper Association of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. No matter how much planning and preparation a grower may do, he said, when it’s time to harvest, it’s time to harvest. 

“They’re working in a perishable commodity that has to be harvested at a certain time,” Quandt said. “It’s not like they can turn off the lights and go home and everything will be the same Monday morning.”

The association has done a survey similar to that of the California Farm Bureau Federation to check how local growers have weathered labor shortages. Fifty-one farmers, who employed a total of 8,927 farmworkers, participated in the May 2013 Labor Survey. Of those, 21 reported they didn’t have enough workers and were left with vacant positions. In 2012, shortages meant 892 acres weren’t fully harvested, at a loss of $4.4 million. 

Other groups have heard concerns as well. Mike Brown, executive director of the typically conservative Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business of San Luis Obispo County (COLAB), a special interest group that claims to represent agricultural interests, told New Times that the organization’s members recognize there should be some available pathway to legal entry and citizenship, especially if it means bolstering a vulnerable industry.

The Central Coast wine industry hasn’t been immune, either. Dana Merrill, president of the Templeton-based Mesa Vineyard Management and owner of Pomar Junction Winery, also described his labor shortage challenges. 

“What is interesting is that it seems to impact us in Paso Robles, what’s going on in Monterey, Santa Maria, or the Santa Ynez Valley,” Merrill said. “They need labor so bad that it impacts us here.”

Because Merrill is contracted by many large wineries in the North County, he has a somewhat stable work force, but larger operations depend on the influx of crews. During harvest, Merrill said he needs four times his usual work force. 

Throughout the industry, this need for workers has meant an increase in costs—higher wages to attract workers and investments in machinery. Talley said they had to raise pay, as have other growers.

Picking strawberries has traditionally paid better because the crop is expensive to grow, requires more workers per acre than other crops, and can bring a market premium. Strawberries pay on a piece-rate basis, so the faster a worker can harvest, the more he or she makes.

While there is competition among crops, the market drives the economics of inputs and crop value, so the industry must do what it can within those margins to get the needed labor. These conditions put growers between a rock and a hard place: On one side market demand dictates farmers’ returns for their crops, and on the other hand government immigration policy is heavily influencing the supply of immigrant labor.

“All we want is a secure labor force to be able to harvest our crop efficiently and economically,” said Mar Vista Berry’s France. “The economics are dictated to us by the consumer. … With strawberries being the No. 1 crop in SLO County, it’s important that we be able to harvest our crop. We’re a big part of the economy.” 

click to enlarge LITTLE SEEDLINGS, BIG EFFORT :  Even with multiple tractors to assist in planting green peppers, there’s still a tremendous amount of manual effort needed to properly plant the field. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • LITTLE SEEDLINGS, BIG EFFORT : Even with multiple tractors to assist in planting green peppers, there’s still a tremendous amount of manual effort needed to properly plant the field.

One way that some farmers have tried to adapt is through investment in mechanization. Like Talley, France has chosen to mechanize where possible. He bought a fleet of Harvester Pros, machines that move through the fields at the same pace as the pickers, allowing them to drop off flats of strawberries as they go rather than running to the end of the field and back. The investment has made harvesting 40 to 50 percent more efficient, he said, and saves the workers time and energy.

It doesn’t come cheap, however. One machine costs around $115,000, and doesn’t actually replace labor; it merely assists. Merrill’s Mesa Vineyard Management has also begun using machines. It’s an investment in efficiency as well as insurance in case of a severe labor shortage. 

“We tried to work on mechanizing in case this labor thing got bad,” Merrill said. “We’ve been afraid of this for a while.”

For wine grapes, tractor-pulled machines run through fields and offload in another unit. The harvesting machines can cost upward of $300,000. Merrill also has begun using a pre-pruning machine, which ran about $35,000 and will prune the vines before workers apply the final touches by hand. 

Merrill estimated that around 85 percent of the area’s wine grape harvests are now done mechanically. Each machine can replace about 50 workers. Ahead of the long-term benefits, however, the initial investment can put a strain on growers. Even larger growers and contractors have to make sure it’s worth it.

“It makes it to where those who can afford financing are able to continue in business, and those who cannot will stop,” France said. 

That’s a statement echoed by John Salisbury, owner of Salisbury Vineyards, just south of San Luis Obispo. Salisbury considers himself a small grower, as do many other farmers and wine grape growers in the area. He contends that when there’s a labor shortage, the small grower is particularly vulnerable—for two reasons. First, labor contractors may prefer contracting with larger growers because there’s simply more work for a longer period of time. It’s a safer business decision. Secondly, smaller producers don’t have the same ability to mechanize as their larger colleagues.

Many contractors and custom operators do have machines available for rent. Merrill said these operators can navigate some small spaces, as long as they are set up for machine harvesting. Some places are more difficult to access than others, such as the hilly slopes of western Paso Robles. 

Salisbury also considers the bottom line when looking at the potential for mechanized work: “Those machines are a lot of money, and if you only have a 5-, 10-, 15-acre spread, then forget about it.”

As for hiring a contractor? 

“Who’s gonna come set up and everything for just a couple hours work?” he asked.

Not to be forgotten, said Grower-Shipper Association special counsel Quandt, is that all this means more strain on the workers. 

“Not having enough workers means you’re taking your same workers and working them more hours and longer days,” he said.


The silent impact

No one better understands the effects of a dysfunctional immigration system than immigrants themselves. 

From conditions in the fields to the situation at the border, the estimated 11 million or more undocumented immigrants in the United States live their daily lives in the shadows. It’s a deportation risk just getting to work, because most workers without legal status can’t obtain a driver’s license. For 39-year-old Refugio, that’s the first thing that came to mind when asked how attaining a legal status would make his life easier as a farmworker in the United States.

“It will actually help a lot, because then we … can go out without being afraid of getting stopped and deported. That’s what breaks the families up,” Refugio said through a translator. “We are afraid that we’ll be shipped off and our families will stay.” 

This scenario is familiar to Refugio, whose brother-in-law was on his way home from work one day when he was pulled over. He didn’t have a driver’s license and was arrested and later deported. He wants to come back to work but says it’s too dangerous.

“Every time people who do want to come over, they are basically risking their lives,” Refugio said. 

Refugio’s sister ended up staying in the United States with her son, separating the family and effectively making her a single mother. For Refugio and many undocumented immigrants in this country, the enhanced security has made it so dangerous to cross the border that they end up bringing their families with them, rather than returning home to visit in December.

Refugio was among a group of farmworkers who spoke to the paper, sharing their experiences as undocumented immigrants in the United States during a parenting class at the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program’s Las Flores Center in Lompoc. He used to work with celery and strawberries, and now works at a vineyard that’s been short-handed, so he and other workers have been asked to work longer days and to work faster. When asked if the vineyard could hire a crew to help, he said there’s often no one to bring in, as labor contractors are short-handed, as well. 

Victor—interviewed separately and not associated with the program in Lompoc—said everyone has to bear the brunt of the labor shortage, but the growers have it the worst. Last year, the contractor that employs Victor had to leave strawberries unpicked in many of the fields they harvested.

For Refugio, the equation is simple. 

“If we’re not able to get [a Blue Card] and we’re not able to cross the border because of the added security, there’s not going to be people here to work,” he said.

This report was common in the room of farmworkers; everyone who was asked said that they’re seeing shortages where they work. Another man, Salvador, 33, from the state of Guerrero in Mexico, harvests lettuce, celery, and cauliflower, and has seen those fields not completely harvested. Salvador pointed out that when the strawberries are ready, many people leave their jobs harvesting vegetables to go work in the strawberry fields, which pays more. Recently, when this happened, the lettuce trailer he was working on went from 13 people to five. 

“People go where the money is,” he said.

While this competition for workers means better pay and perhaps more collective bargaining ability, they recognize that it can also have a negative impact in that increased food prices mean less demand. 

Life as an undocumented immigrant has no shortage of challenges, and that’s for those who are already here. Crossing the border has become a feared and dangerous endeavor for many, as told by Victor’s experience. It’s led many people to stay put, with the available work no longer outweighing the risk of a border crossing.

Salvador described the risks of crossing the border as a triple threat: the border patrol, the heat of the open desert, and the assailants and drug traffickers who control much of the territories along the border. It’s reported that nowadays the coyotes are in cahoots with the cartels, either working for them or paying a stiff fine to operate in the cartel’s turf. 

If you’re going on your own, without the help of a coyote, then they’ll charge you to pass.

“I can survive the desert and the border patrol, but what’s difficult is the traffickers,” Salvador said. “They’ll strip you down for everything you have. They’re the ones that have the guns.” 

“If you want to be more protected,” said another member of the class, “then you just take the backpack full of drugs, and that way your family will be protected from them.”

Victor said the least you can expect from a crossing attempt is “an ass beating.” 

For some who make it across, it makes sense to stay put. The drug war in Mexico has spread throughout the country with cartels fighting each other for territory and the federal police and army fighting the cartels. When asked if the violence is why he left, Salvador explained that it wasn’t what drove him to leave, but it’s why he doesn’t want to go back.


Moving forward: The dance of reform

Agricultural interests in California and throughout the United States have been vocal in drumming up support for the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which is currently on the Senate floor and going through committees in the House of Representatives. Pundits agree that the bill shares a degree of bipartisan support, but a segment of the GOP has threatened to oppose the bill if it doesn’t meet certain standards for enforcement, meaning S.B. 744 could face stiff competition in the House. 

The bill has a special category for agricultural workers, created in part because of the industry’s heavy dependence on immigrants and the high levels of migration and seasonality among the work force. For undocumented immigrants already working in agriculture, a Blue Card will be available to those who meet the general amnesty requirements, as well as requirements specific to agricultural workers, who must show that they’ve worked at least 100 days in agriculture in the two-year period before December 31, 2012. A Blue Card will offer work authorization to its holder, his or her spouse, and children, and will also permit traveling outside the country, allowing for a trip home and a safe, legal return to the United States to work.

A Blue Card holder may become eligible for permanent residency in five years if he or she worked at least 150 days in three of those years, or in eight years if he or she worked at least 100 days in five of those years. 

The bill also creates a guest worker program specific to agricultural employees, known as W-2 and W-3 visas. These visas are designed to replace current temporary work visa programs like the H2-A visa. A W-2 visa is contract-based, in that an applicant must have a contract with a particular employer, while the W-3 visa is an at-will visa, where those in the program may change employers once in the country. Capped at 112,333 in the first four years, W visas will require the employer to guarantee employment at least 75 percent of the time, as well as mandating special minimum wage requirements, and providing or reimbursing for housing and transportation to and from work.

Not surprisingly, the bill has issues. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center released a podcast through its website that talks about the problems with current immigration policies, and potential pitfalls of the current legislation on the table if it becomes amended in ways that strip visas and add security. 

Executive Director Eric Cohen offered his forecast: “You’re going to get some people who will benefit and some people who won’t, and therefore there will be another underclass of workers here in the country—possibly millions of them—who aren’t going to qualify and are going to [remain] undocumented, and employers are going to take advantage of them.”

If the bill is passed with visa programs still intact, how undocumented immigrants attain visas will be a challenge, Cynthia Rice, attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, told New Times. Between the complicated forms and laws involved, Rice said there will be a need for support offices and organizations. 

“Almost anybody is going to have to get some kind of help,” Rice explained. “It’s just not realistic that a person can do that on their own.”

Growers feel similarly, worrying that new programs will be as cumbersome as their predecessors, but hoping that this round will make working a little more accessible for everybody involved. 

“It would be nice to have a system where the farmworker knew how it worked, the grower knew how it worked, and the government knew how it worked,” Merrill said.

That true reform is even a possibility—that it’s even being seriously considered—is a step in the right direction, Quandt said. 

As for Victor, Refugio, Salvador, and the other farmworkers who spoke to New Times, it’s pretty simple. When asked if he would pay all the fines and back taxes, and go through the process of becoming documented if it was available to him, Salvador responded, “Yeah. If it means keeping the family together, yeah—definitely.”

It would mean being able to go back home to see family without risking their lives. In the meantime, they leave that to the imagination. 

“I come and go in my dreams every day,” Salvador said, as everyone in the room started laughing. “I leave at night and come back during the day, but I come back really tired.” ∆

* New Times is using only the first names of people who shared their stories of coming into the United States. 

Intern Jono Kinkade can be reached through Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay


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