The biggest fresh garlic producer in the nation is giving its employees a hefty raise, reflecting the desperation of farmers to attract a dwindling number of farmworkers.
Christopher Ranch, which grows garlic on 5,000 acres in Gilroy, Calif., announced recently that it would hike pay for farmworkers from $11 an hour to $13 hour this year, or 18%, and then to $15 in 2018. That's four years earlier than what's required by California's schedule for minimum wage increases.
Ken Christopher, vice president at Christopher Ranch, said the effect of the move was immediately obvious. At the end of last year, the farm was short 50 workers needed to help peel, package and roast garlic. Within two weeks of upping wages in January, applications flooded in. Now the company has a wait-list 150 people long.
"I knew it would help a little bit, but I had no idea that it would solve our labor problem," Christopher said.
He said the farm has been trying, without success, to draw new workers since 2014. Human resources frantically advertised open farm-labor positions, posting help-wanted ads online and urging employees to ply their networks for potential recruits. Nothing came of it.
Farmers across the country have reported that they, too, are struggling to find farmhands. The dearth of ag labor seems to have reached a tipping point when the Obama administration stepped up border enforcement and deported millions of undocumented workers.
Perhaps partly because of the crackdown, plus the financial crisis of 2008, more Mexicans returned home than migrated to the United States from 2009 to 2014, for the first time in decades, according to the Pew Research Center.
A stronger, more dynamic Mexican economy also seems to be prompting a turn away from careers in agriculture. The total supply of farm laborers in Mexico, for which growers in the U.S. compete, declined by 150,000 workers every year between 1980 and 2010, according to a study last year by Diane Charlton and Edward Taylor, researchers at Montana State University and UC Davis.
"Kids aren't growing up in rural Mexico to be farmworkers the way they once were," said Taylor. "Mexico has been successful at building rural schools and providing kids in villages with access to education."
The shortage of workers is one reason farms have cut back production of fruits and vegetables by 9.5%, costing growers $3.1 billion in lost revenue, according to a 2015 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonprofit that promotes immigration reform.
"It's continuing to become more acute as fewer new workers come into the country to do agricultural work, and experienced workers here are aging out of the industry," said Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for the Western Growers' Assn. trade group.
The scarcity has prompted employers to give farmworkers a raise.
Between 2010 and 2016, weekly wages for those in crop production went up by 28% in California, compared with a 20% rise in average state wages overall, according to the Employment Development Department. Farmwork pays about $32,500 annually on average in California, the most recent data show. The pay data can include management and desk workers.
Agricultural workers have long been entitled to a minimum wage. Lawsuits over paying for breaks, training and other nonproductive time were largely resolved in 2015 when Gov. Brown signed legislation offering growers a way to settle back-wage disputes and avoid prosecutions. That law, however, is under review by a federal court.
The governor last year also signed legislation changing the threshold for overtime for farmworkers, who now can receive such pay after eight hours of work or more than 40 hours a week. Previous law set the bar at 10 hours per day and 60 hours per week.
Farm wages have risen more gradually in other parts of the U.S., still far outpacing the rise in pay for all sectors.
Throwing money at the problem hasn't solved anything yet, because it isn't drawing in workers from other industries.
"The one constant is that no matter how much we pay, domestic workers are not applying for these jobs," Resnick said. "Raising wages only serves to cannibalize from the existing workforce; it does nothing to add new laborers to the pool."
The question is whether Christopher Ranch's approach of offering bigger raises can be replicated elsewhere.
Christopher Ranch is a huge operation — employing around 600 workers who touch garlic and other food products every day — and so it may be better positioned to withstand a wage hike than smaller operators.
Garlic also requires a lot of human labor to harvest, package and roast, so the farm has an incentive to keep its workforce intact.
The company is at a disadvantage because it is nestled in the southern tip of Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley. The mushrooming tech sector has driven up average pay – and the cost of living – for locals across many sectors.
On average, people in Santa Clara County earned $121,212 last year, up 41% from $85,800 in 2010, according to the Employment Development Department. That means Christopher Ranch has to make its jobs attractive enough to draw in workers who may live far away.
When the farm raised its lowest wages from $10 to $11 last summer, no new workers streamed in, says Christopher, the vice president. He reasons that the extra $1 wasn't enough to tempt people to drive in from cheaper nearby areas, such as San Benito, Monterey and Merced counties, where one-bedroom apartments can be had for less than the $2,500-a-month average in Santa Clara County.
News of the eventual raise to $15, which workers learned about when they got their first checks in mid-January, spread quickly, though.
"Moving to $13 became really attractive and made it worth it for people to carpool into these jobs," Christopher said.
He's now getting applications from workers willing to commute nearly two hours to and from the farm.
"I see this as an example of enlightened management, that realizes agriculture needs to adjust to a new world in which there will be fewer farmworkers than before," said Taylor, the UC Davis researcher.
Follow me @NatalieKitro on Twitter
Times staff writer Geoffrey Mohan contributed to this report.