SACRAMENTO BEE

September 1, 2017

 

California farmers say they don’t have enough workers – but it’s not because of Trump

BY STEPHEN MAGAGNINI

CLEMENTS, CA --- As temperatures plunged from 94 degrees into the 60s on a recent August evening, Lodi grower Brad Goehring dispatched his crew of Mexican workers into a field to pick Pinot gris. The grapes were finally sweet enough, and the 2017 wine harvest had begun.

Instead of plucking the grapes by hand, workers climbed into the cabs of giant yellow harvesters imported from France. They rumbled through 36 acres, row by row. Rods attached to the giant machines shook juicy clumps of pearl-sized indigo grapes off the vines and onto a conveyer belt. As the trucks filled with grapes, workers drove them straight to the winemaker.

Goehring, vice chairman of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, said he has turned to mechanization because of an acute shortage of farmworkers from Mexico. Other growers echoed his complaint, which has become a major theme this year for California’s behemoth agricultural industry as it pushes for immigration reform. Industry representatives say fears of immigration enforcement under the Trump administration are now exacerbating the situation, making workers afraid to take jobs in California fields.

Despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to step up deportations of undocumented immigrants, there’s little evidence of fieldworkers being rounded up in California this year. News reports have cited a handful of cases elsewhere in the country, including some apple pickers in Upstate New York and two farmworkers in Vermont who were participating in a protest. Only one of the men working in Goehring’s field said he knew of anyone who had taken their family back to Mexico because of deportation fears. Their employer said he wasn’t aware of any cases, either.

“We haven’t heard of a single ICE raid in California fields,” said Goehring.

ICE spokesman James Schwab said there have been no raids in California targeting agricultural businesses or areas because ICE does not conduct location-based raids. Schwab said that the agency singles out individual “targets” and may arrest others while apprehending the person of interest.

In Woodland, where an estimated 6,000 people are undocumented, the deportation fears that arose when Trump was first elected have faded, said some community leaders.

“We have not had any families who say they are fearful to take their children to school or go to work,” said Sylvina Frausto, a community leader who works at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, which hosts up to 500 parishioners per service. “We held a forum with the police chief and immigration attorneys the month after Trump was elected, and only 60 people came.”

Maria Zavala, 43, who lives at the Davis Migrant Labor Camp, said that back in February she knew workers in Woodland who didn’t want to leave their homes.

“People didn’t go to work to prune crops or orchards,” she said.

But now, she said, there are so many farmworkers in and around Yolo County that she and her friends have had to drive to Napa to find work.

While stories of a mass exodus since the election may be overblown, there is little doubt that the influx of undocumented migrants that California has for decades depended on to harvest its crops has slowed drastically.

The number of Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally has declined by more than 1 million since 2007, with a 150,000 drop in California, according to the Pew Research Institute. In fiscal 2016, 192,969 Mexicans were apprehended at the border, down from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000.

An estimated 70 percent of California’s roughly 600,000 farmworkers are undocumented, according to United Farm Workers Vice President Armando Elenes.