SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY — Fears of a potential farm labor shortage have caused San Joaquin Valley growers to boost wages to as much as $10 an hour this year to attract and keep workers for the harvest season.
With the farm-labor pool already tight and crops ready to be picked, growers are scrambling to secure their supply of workers.
"It is getting very competitive out there, and employers are having to offer incentives to find the labor they need," said Oscar Ramos, a grape farmer and Kingsburg-based farm-labor contractor. "And one of those incentives is higher wages."
Farmers and agriculture industry leaders say wages have risen $1 to $1.50 an hour this year compared with last year, or as much as 12 percent. Wages are $9 to $10 an hour, higher than California's minimum wage of $8.
Modesto-area fruit grower Paul Van Konynenburg said the increase for his crews has been over two years but is still substantial.
"The pool is pretty shallow, so everyone is competing for the best men and women," he said.
For workers such as Jose Aceves, the higher wage is a welcome relief. He and a crew of about 20 workers harvested peaches for HMC Farms in the Selma area earlier this month.
"We really appreciate being paid more," Aceves said. "Because we know how hard it is right now for some farms to find enough workers. There just aren't as many people as there used to be."
Experts say tighter border security, 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.
Raid rumors hurt
Adding a new wrinkle to the shortage of workers is the fear of immigration sweeps. Earlier this month, agriculture officials, farmers and law enforcement came together to quell rumors that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were rounding up people.
Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, said he spoke to federal officials, who assured him that no raids are taking place. Cunha said the rumors couldn't have come at a worse time.
"We already have a labor shortage, and this only exacerbates the problem," Cunha said. "People are staying home because they are afraid."
Farmers knew the shortage was going to get worse before it got better. After dealing with fewer workers last year, they were spurred to take quick action this season.
"What we are seeing is the concern farmers have that they may not get the workers they need, or that they lose them to someone else," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "And it is already happening."
Bedwell said he heard from a grape grower who lost workers to another farmer who was paying higher wages.
"Unfortunately, that is part of the free-market system," Bedwell said. "Workers have the ability to go somewhere else, if they can make more money."
Farm labor contractors say they are seeing more demand for labor.
The higher-than-normal temperatures have accelerated the ripening of many labor-intensive crops at once, including cherries, blueberries and tree fruit.
Harold McClarty, president of HMC Farms, increased his workers' wages by $1, raising their hourly wage from more than $8 to more than $9.
McClarty said it's critical to have enough workers for early-season fruit, especially when prices in the marketplace can be higher.
"The timing is so important because if you miss one day, you could lose your marketing opportunity," he said. "It is crazy."
Farmers are seeing a similar increase in "piece-rate" pay, which is based on how much a worker harvests during a shift, said Van Konynenburg, a grower of peaches, apples, cherries and apricots.
He said farmers are getting higher prices for crops that rely heavily on mechanized harvesting, such as walnuts, almonds and wine grapes, but not so much for those still harvested by hand.
Lupe Sandoval, managing director of the Sacramento-based California Farm Labor Contractor Association, does not think farm labor wages will rise substantially higher. Nor does he think offering higher wages will result in others applying for farm jobs.
"Just because you offer someone $20 an hour does not mean you are going to get a good worker," Sandoval said. "There are still a lot of people that will work for $8 an hour at McDonald's than in the fields for more money."
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.