Farmers Can't Find Enough Workers to Harvest Crops—and Fruits and Vegetables Are Literally Rotting in Fields

By: Barry Estabrook  |  March 2019  |  From the Fields to Your Table

California grows a huge percentage of our country's fruits and vegetables, yet farms are facing epic labor shortages preventing ripe produce from even being picked, let alone making its way to your grocery store. Here's what you need to know.

Photo: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A grim scene greeted me on the chilly, overcast morning last August when Tony Serrano took me to one of his strawberry fields, not far from Watsonville on the central California coast. It looked like the entire field had been devastated by disease or drought. Surveying his crop, Serrano shook his head. I couldn't tell whether he was embarrassed, depressed or simply resigned. Leaves that had not already turned brown were yellowing. His plants were stunted and shriveled, where there were any surviving plants at all. Long sections of farmland showed no signs of anything ever growing there—just bare plastic covering the raised rows. Rotten, blackened fruits lay among invading weeds on the loamy soil.

What made the scene more poignant was that earlier in the day I'd visited one of Serrano's zucchini fields a half-hour's drive south, outside of Salinas. It was immaculate. The plants were vigorous, covered in blossoms and heavy with squash in all stages of ripeness. A dozen workers loaded wheelbarrow-like conveyances with perfect, deep green zucchini and rushed them through the rows to a waiting box truck. Serrano himself seemed like a different man: friendly, humorous, occasionally mischievous, with a smile that readily erupted from beneath his bushy mustache.

One thing explained the stark difference between Serrano's two fields: despite offering nearly twice the going wages, he had been unable to secure enough workers to tend and, when the time came, pick his strawberries. The shortage of labor had forced him to perform farming's version of triage and abandon the berries to ensure that he could harvest as many zucchini as possible, which he is contracted to sell to Costco. "Summer squash are this farm's bread and butter," he explained. "I had to give them first dibs on workers."

"When I first started the farm, people were always showing up at the gates begging for work," Serrano said. "Now, we farmers are the ones who are begging for workers." —Tony Serrano

Tony Serrano in the zucchini fields

Before leaving the strawberry field, Serrano picked up one of the few edible berries in sight and urged me to take a bite. Savoring one of the richest, most densely sweet strawberries I'd ever tasted, I was struck by the bitter irony it represented. Serrano had achieved the American dream. Smuggled illegally into the country from Mexico at age 3 in the trunk of a Ford Gran Torino, Serrano joined his parents, who had arrived earlier, in the California fields. He became a legal resident in 1986 under President Reagan's amnesty bill, advanced through a series of agricultural jobs and, four years ago, fulfilled his dream of owning his own farm company—JAS Family Farms Organic. In addition to strawberries and summer squash, Serrano raises tomatoes, artichokes and cabbages on about 100 acres. But instead of enjoying the success he worked so hard to build, he is forced to stand by helplessly as his crops rot in the fields. Thousands of dollars' worth of nutritious—and delicious—food was going to waste all around us. "When I first started the farm, people were always showing up at the gates begging for work," Serrano said. "Now, we farmers are the ones who are begging for workers."

A Growing Problem

He is far from the only American farmer begging for help. John Hollay is the senior director of government relations for the United Fresh Produce Association, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group that represents more than 1,000 companies spanning the entire spectrum of produce production and sales, from retail giants such as Walmart and Kroger to small farmers like Serrano. Hollay told me that the shortage of labor was the "No. 1 issue" members talked about at the group's annual convention last fall.

The scarcity of workers began cutting into farmers' earnings within a few years of the end of the recent recession—costing them an estimated $1.3 billion in lost income in 2012, the last year for which figures have been compiled. And Hollay insists the problem has grown worse since. "It's a shame," he said. "We have the crops but not enough workers to harvest them. It should be a crime—the idea that we would let this happen in a nation with our agricultural resources." He personally feels that the issue goes beyond the businesses he represents. "Food insecurity is a national security threat. And that is not something I say lightly. A country that can't provide food for its people is simply not secure."

In fact, the ramifications of the scarcity of farmworkers are among the few issues industry insiders and labor representatives agree on. "The shortage is a very big deal," said Erik Nicholson, the national vice president of United Farm Workers, a California-based union group. "Before, farmers could churn through people—'You don't like it here? Get out!'—and there were 10 others waiting for their job. Now, we're going through a paradigm shift, moving from a situation where land, water and labor were abundant to where they are becoming scarce."

The crisis extends everywhere from the tomato fields of Florida to the apple orchards of Washington state. In 2011, in what turned out to be just the leading edge of the labor crunch, undocumented migrant workers destined for Georgia avoided the state because they feared being expelled due to a new state law cracking down on illegal immigrants. Farmers there lost $75 million as a result of having not having enough help to harvest their onions, melons, peaches and other produce. "All types of farms and ranches are facing labor shortages, but the problem is critical in the fruit and vegetable sector where farmers are more dependent on hand-harvesting," said Vincent "Zippy" Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 6 million farmers from all over the country. Every single one of the nation's 10 most popular fruits—including apples, table grapes, strawberries and oranges—must be picked by hand. The same applies to seven of the top 10 vegetables we eat. (See "How Labor Shortages Could Impact Your Plate" below) Without human harvesters, the vegetable sections of supermarkets would offer only potatoes, carrots, leaf lettuce and salad mix. There would be no tomatoes, onions, head lettuce, bell peppers or cucumbers. And that's just to name a few.

Labor Shortage Ground Zero

California is the nation's largest farming state, with more than $50 billion in annual agricultural sales. Looking around the typical supermarket produce section, it is difficult to overstate the importance the state plays in supplying the country with fruits and vegetables. It produces all of the nation's artichokes and plums, more than 90 percent of our broccoli, celery, avocados, tangerines, mandarins and nectarines, and nearly 80 percent of our cauliflower, apricots, strawberries, raspberries, grapes and lemons. All of these crops are hand-harvested. In addition, large numbers of employees are required to operate machines and work in packing houses.

Reliance on those laborers makes California central to today's crisis. The vast majority of the state's farmworkers were born in Mexico. And nearly two-thirds of those—comprising half of California's crop workers—are in the country without legal documentation and therefore vulnerable to being deported, according to Philip Martin, Ph.D., professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis. Two decades ago, the state was awash with farm labor thanks to the nearly 100,000 unauthorized workers who came into the country each year. These newcomers, who tended to be young, rootless and happy to relocate to fill job openings, once made up nearly 25 percent of the agricultural workforce. Today, they account for less than 2 percent, having been replaced by older, more settled immigrants, who have been working on American farms an average of 15 years and are typically around 40 years old—an age where many are no longer physically able to perform strenuous, potentially dangerous jobs like climbing ladders with heavy containers to pick fruit, or bending over broccoli or strawberry plants for hours in 90--degree heat. Other farmworkers—whether immigrant or not—are leaving agriculture for higher-paying jobs in sectors such as construction and landscaping.

Creating what amounts to a perfect storm, many experienced laborers are also opting to move back to Mexico. A study undertaken by the Pew Research Center estimates that close to 1 million Mexicans and their families left the United States and returned home between 2007 and 2016—causing the number of Mexican immigrants living in our country to fall from a peak of 12.8 million to 12 million.

oswaldo cisneros martinez

One farmworker, Oswaldo Cisneros Martinez, offered me a firsthand explanation of why many of his compatriots are going back to their countries. He and I met just past sunset at a coffee shop in Salinas after he had put in a long day with a broccoli-picking crew. Martinez, who is in his mid-30s, told me through an interpreter that he knew several people who had returned to Mexico. Their reasons were primarily economic. "The pay is low in California," he said. "The rents are high. Two to three families are living in the same house. It is getting impossible to live here now. In the past, it was better."

Data on farmworkers' salaries compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce show that the average annual income for all farmworkers is $17,400, but nearly half make less than $10,000. The average rent for a two--bedroom apartment in Salinas is $24,400 per year.

"The atmosphere is also bad," Martinez continued. "There's a lot of anxiety in the community. Immigration agents are invading people's homes using the excuse that they are looking for criminals. Once they even came to an apartment I was living in and arrested someone. It concerns us a lot. Especially with the new president in Mexico, people are more hopeful that conditions will improve there." Most of all, though, he wants a little respect from American consumers. "I would like to see that the public values our work," he said. "We contribute to society, first by picking the food you eat, but also by spending money in this country on clothes, gas, food and rent like any other group of people."

Struggling to Find Solutions

In response to the crisis, some farmers have adopted what Martin calls the "4-S" strategies: satisfy current workers to retain them with benefits and bonuses, stretch workers' productivity and improve field conditions through mechanical aids that make tasks like harvesting faster and less strenuous, substitute machines and robotics for workers when possible, and supplement existing workers with immigrants who are here on temporary guest-worker visas.

As the manager of Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce—a company with about 1,000 employees and several farms in California and Mexico that grow tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and cucumbers for many national super-market chains—Ernie Farley is implementing each of Martin's 4-S steps. As I drove to meet him at a packinghouse near Watsonville, I passed a vast field edged with parked vehicles. Hundreds of workers toiled elbow-to-elbow over rows of plants that extended as far as I could see. The lesson was clear: It takes a lot of human hands to harvest our food.

A receptionist at the packinghouse ushered me into a conference room where Farley greeted me from behind a laptop. With round rimless glasses and a gray goatee, Farley projects a studious, almost professorial image befitting his university degree in plant sciences. In many ways he is Serrano's opposite. But he is dealing with the same workforce issues, only on a much larger scale. "For the crops we grow, the shortage of agricultural labor has been going on for a decade, and it's becoming a higher and higher subject of concern," he said.

Farley explained that his company typically harvests strawberries on three-day rotations: "If you have 90 acres, you'll pick 30 on a Monday, 30 Tuesday, 30 Wednesday, then come back and repick the first 30 acres on Thursday and so on. Sunday is a day off. If you don't have enough workers to maintain that rotation, strawberries that were supposed to be picked Monday get picked on Tuesday or Wednesday and eventually you get so far behind that the crop gets overripe and you have to jump ahead and abandon sections. That has been happening to us often."

Andrew & Williamson is big enough to be able to supplement its labor force with legal guest workers. Under the law, employers must pay for these workers' transportation to and from their home countries and provide them with approved housing while they are here—making them too expensive for operations such as Serrano's that also don't have the resources to deal with the necessary government applications and other paperwork. According to the United Fresh Produce Association, 42 percent of growers don't use the program because of these reasons. Even for those who can, bureaucratic snafus often delay workers' arrival, resulting in crops not getting picked in time.

Farley and his business partners are also utilizing technology to speed up harvesting. Traditionally, a worker would pick a carton of berries and then lug it to a truck at the edge of the field to be put on a shipping pallet. The company has invested in machines that creep through fields at the same pace as its harvesting crews. The workers pick directly behind the machines and simply put full boxes on conveyor belts that carry them to the person who stacks them on the pallets. "We try to consider every time labor is involved," -Farley said. "Is using a forklift more efficient than hand-moving? Can we harvest at night to maximize the use of our machines and keep workers happy—when their lifestyle makes it better for one spouse to work at night while the other takes care of the kids? We're also growing plants in buildings on counters that are high enough that workers can pick standing up. Overall, we can now get the same amount harvested with a third fewer workers."

The holy grail for farmers facing a future of labor shortages is replacing workers with robotics. Andrew & Williamson is on the forefront of that, as well. For the past four years, it has been conducting research on one of its farms near Ventura, in cooperation with Agrobot. "We've spent a lot of money on it, but we're a long way off from replacing humans," Farley said. "Remember, we are managing biological systems with an almost infinite number of variables. Robotics have been successful in businesses where you can standardize procedures so the machines have to make very few decisions. But with the crops we grow, those crucial decisions—made by a person at plant level—are extremely difficult to roboticize."

Using the example of watermelon, he explained that a picker must first determine how ripe the fruit is. Then, if rain is in the forecast for the next few days, he might decide to harvest it immediately. If not, he may choose to leave it to ripen a bit further. All of this has to be done in a split second. "Right now, only humans can sort all that out," Farley said.

Larger growers have one other option, and it will displease the rising number of conscientious shoppers who prefer fresh, locally grown (or at least domestically grown) produce. American farm companies are increasingly moving their operations to countries such as Mexico where workers are abundant. The Congressional Research Service reports that prior to 2015, the U.S. exported more agricultural products to Mexico than it imported. But since then the trend has reversed, largely because of a surge in Mexican produce being brought into our country. It's also one of the main reasons why the California labor shortage hasn't yet caused produce shortages and empty supermarket shelves.

"American consumers have a choice. Do you want a system where we import workers or import our food?" —John Hollay, United Fresh Produce Association

"American consumers have a choice," said Hollay. "Do you want a system where we import workers or import our food?" His organization is one of 70 agricultural trade associations that signed a letter to President Donald Trump in March 2017 pleading for him to provide "a lawful path for foreign workers to enter the United States on a nonimmigrant basis." Hollay explained that they're trying to promote a practical solution that lies between the permanent residence and path to citizenship championed by some politicians, and a system of no lawful protections whatsoever that others demand. "All we are looking for is some sort of legal status for farmworkers. Something that lets employers and workers to go home at night and not worry about an ICE raid," he said.

That would include legal status for workers already in the U.S., an improved guest worker program, and no further enforcement laws unless they include solutions to agriculture's problems in attracting and maintaining a workforce. In a position paper, Hollay's association writes: "The produce industry does not oppose proper enforcement of our nation's immigration laws, but to do so without addressing the reality that much of the workforce in agriculture is foreign-born would be devastating to our sector."

I asked him whether, with today's atmosphere in Washington, there was any hope that Congress and the president would line up behind the sort of reforms he wants. There was a long pause before he said, "Stranger things have happened in this city."

How Labor Shortages Could Impact Your Plate

Cobb Salad with Herb-Rubbed Chicken

Pictured recipe: Cobb Salad with Herb-Rubbed Chicken

Below are the 10 most popular fruits and vegetables in the U.S. (ranked in order). Take a look at how many of them rely on hand harvesting (*)—including every one of our favorite fruits.

Fruits

1. Bananas*
2. Apples*
3. Table grapes*
4. Strawberries*
5. Oranges*
6. Watermelon*
7. Lemons*
8. Blueberries*
9. Peaches*
10. Cantaloupe*

Vegetables

1. Potatoes
2. Tomatoes*
3. Onions*
4. Carrots
5. Heads of lettuce*
6. Broccoli*
7. Mixed salad greens
8. Bell peppers*
9. Celery*
10. Cucumbers*

BARRY ESTABROOK is a three-time James Beard Award–winning journalist. An updated edition of his exposé, Tomatoland, was released last year.