By Tito Sasaki
How can we secure a dependable supply of farm labor? That was the question in the mind of some thirty participants at the Agricultural Labor Roundtable held in late January at the Agricultural Commissioner’s office in Santa Rosa. The prospect of the immigration law reform is murky. The current H2A program has merits but is costly, according to speaker Steve Dutton, Farm Bureau director, whose ranch employs over 70 workers with H2A visas.
The Farm Bureau, both at national and state levels, has been pushing for immigration law reform. Sonoma County FB gives safety and management training for FB members and their employees. Many of us provide free or subsidized housing for employees. The County Board of Supervisors has improved the permit process for farm worker housing. SSU and local high schools offer vocational training. In short, all of us are doing our best to secure farm labor.
But will it assure an abundant supply of farm labor in the future? Likely not. We are rapidly approaching the end of the good times when we could count on Mexico as the stable source of affordable labor. The game changer is the advances in Mexican economy and urbanization – unless the nation falls victim to the anarchy created by drug cartels.
Mexico’s GDP per capita is still less than one-third of ours, but its growth rate is more than double ours while their fertility rate is dropping. During the past 25 years agricultural employment in Mexico has decreased from 30% of the total employment to 13%, while their farm productivity has increased nearly five times. (Data: World Bank, UN, and CIA) It is conceivable that within two decades Mexico will turn from being the leading exporter of farm labor to a net importer, hiring migrant workers from Guatemala and other neighboring countries.
What can we do then? One solution is mechanization. At the Roundtable, industry leaders discussed sophisticated machinery not only for grape harvesting but also for pruning, canopy management, precision spraying, etc. California growers of processing tomatoes increased their harvest productivity from 5.3 man-hour/ton in 1960 to mere 0.4 m-h/ton by 1980. (Data: Huffman, Iowa State Univ.) It was a result of two coordinated groups of innovations: one in mechanical harvester and opto-electronic sorter designs, and the other in breeding a variety best fit for mechanical harvesting, having such characteristics as firm body, uniform ripening, and easy detachment from the vine.
Mechanization is not the only solution. We should look for crops or varieties that won’t require high labor input. Closer attention to labor management is another. Since many farming operations in Sonoma County are small in scale and catering to a quality market, extensive mechanization or a drastic change in crop would not be possible. A solution may be selective adoption of labor-saving equipment and crop mix and shift from seasonal employment to permanent jobs. In one way or another, we should be prepared for a new era of agriculture that will be characterized by fewer, higher-skilled, and higher –paid workers.