FRESNO -- San Joaquin Valley farmers, already slammed this year by hail and high fuel costs, could be hit with another blow: a shortage of workers.
Tighter border enforcement, increased smuggling costs for immigrants and drug-related violence are contributing to fewer people coming to the United States from Mexico -- a longtime source of undocumented workers for Valley farmers.
And while critics of illegal immigration may be pleased with the current decline, farmers are worried.
"For now, they are getting the job done," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based Grape and Tree Fruit League. "We just don't know what this will be like later this summer."
From mid-June through October, labor-intensive crops, including peaches, plums, nectarines, pluots and grapes, will reach their peak, as will the demand for workers to care for and harvest the fruit.
Fewer workers could mean delays in harvesting, higher labor costs and potentially higher prices at the grocery store.
Sanger-based farm labor contractor Fred Garza said that at this time of year he should have about 1,400 workers to thin and harvest early varieties of tree fruit. But Garza is short about 400 workers.
Longtime farmworker Juventin Padilla, 67, of Mendota said the labor shortage should come as no surprise to growers and contractors.
"There are less people here to work because the government keeps sending them back, or (won't) let them in," Padilla said. "And the people who are here and who have papers, they don't want to work."
Agricultural leaders are watching the situation closely. As word of a potential shortage spreads, growers whose crops are weeks away from harvest are taking the unusual step of talking with farm labor contractors now to line up the workers they will need later this summer.
In California, farm labor contractors supply the bulk of the workers in agriculture. And thousands are needed every year.
Although farm labor contractors and growers say they do their best to check the documents of their workers to make sure they are legally eligible to work, experts say that at least 60 percent of the farmworkers in the United States are undocumented immigrants.
But not everyone is convinced the shortages are real. A spokeswoman for the United Farm Workers union said the situation may be overblown.
"Simple economics tells us that if there was in fact a labor shortage, we would be seeing an increase in wages and better benefits for workers," said Maria Machuca, spokeswoman for the UFW. "We are not seeing that yet in nonunion companies."
At companies with UFW contracts, Machuca said the union is not seeing persistent labor shortages.
Fewer coming to U.S.
Still, farm labor employers and a demographer say the labor pool has become shallower as the number of people trying to enter the United States from Mexico declines.
A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., found that the number of people caught at the border plummeted 70 percent, from more than 1 million in 2005 to 286,000 in 2011.
Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the center, said it's clear that fewer people are coming into the United States, and apprehensions along the border are a big reason.
As the United States has beefed up the border, the price for being smuggled in has spiked to a range of $3,000 to more than $5,000. That's up from about $2,500, Passel said.
"And many of those trying to sneak across the border are seasonal workers," Passel said.
Mendota shopkeeper Joseph Riofrio said several of his regular customers are not around this year.
"And when I asked their family members where they were, they said it was just too difficult and dangerous to get across," said Riofrio, who is also a Mendota City Council member.
Oscar Ramos, a farm labor contractor in Kingsburg, knows firsthand about the decline in workers. He has about 500 workers, 200 fewer than last year.
"By early May, we could already tell that there were fewer workers out there," said Ramos, who works primarily in the grape industry.
Ramos said he would love to hire workers from here in the United States, especially those from hard-hit Valley towns like Mendota, where April's unemployment rate was 40.7 percent.
"We have even worked with the Employment Development Department to try and get people to fill these jobs in ag, but we are not getting anyone," Ramos said.
Harvest to take longer
One outcome of smaller labor crews is that the springtime work of thinning, removing plant suckers and even harvesting may take longer to complete.
Harold McClarty, owner of HMC Farms in Kingsburg, a grower, packer and tree fruit shipper, expects the cost of labor to rise as the demand for work crews rises. "There is no question that once grapes gets started, things are going to get real competitive," McClarty said. "And the price to find good help will go up."
How this affects the price consumers pay for produce remains to be seen.
John Thiesen, general manager of tree fruit grower-packer Giumarra of Reedley, said that if labor costs skyrocket and crop supplies are short, producers could begin to negotiate with buyers for more money. Any increase would be passed along to consumers.
"But that won't be easy," Thiesen said. "And if they don't raise prices, then we have to absorb that cost."
Mechanization doesn't appear to be a short-term answer. Take grapes, for example. Mechanization has trimmed some jobs, but Valley farm experts say an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 workers are needed for an intense three- to four-week harvest period in late summer.
Raisin growers must lay down their grapes before rainy weather ruins their crop, and in time to meet crop insurance deadlines.
Last year, raisin growers saw the beginnings of a tightening labor pool, as some farmers had trouble finding workers.
"We had a few incidences where growers just weren't able to get the grapes down in time," said Glen Goto, president of the Fresno-based Raisin Bargaining Association. "And we are hoping we don't see that again."
Steven Vasquez, a University of California farm adviser, said that as farmers have a harder time finding workers, growers will widen their use of some form of mechanization for harvesting raisin grapes.
In other instances, growers are switching to crops that are less labor-intensive, such as nuts.
One thing seems certain. As the labor pool gets smaller, the competition among contractors for labor is expected to get fierce, said Lupe Sandoval, managing director of the Sacramento-based California Farm Labor Contractor Association.
Already, Sandoval said, "there are supervisors who will spend their days patrolling the perimeters of the field to keep anyone from being able to entice their workers to work for someone else."
Legislative solutions are not likely to offer any quick remedies. An effort to establish a federal guest-worker bill has stalled in Congress. And a California bill introduced this year seeking to grant work permits to undocumented workers living in the state faces an uphill battle.
"A lot of people have realized that we may be at a catastrophe stage here in California," Sandoval said. "And something needs to be done so that we don't end up with crops being plowed under."
Fresno Bee reporter Robert Rodriguez can be reached at (559) 441-6327, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @FresnoBeeBob.