Wages rise on California farms. Americans still don’t want the job
The flow of labor began drying up when President Obama tightened the border. Now President Trump is promising to deport more people, raid more companies and build a wall on the southern border. That has made California farms a proving ground for the
Arnulfo Solorio’s desperate mission to recruit farmworkers for the Napa Valley took him far from the pastoral vineyards to a raggedy parking lot in Stockton, in the heart of the Central Valley.
Carrying a fat stack of business cards for his company, Silverado Farming, Solorio approached one prospect, a man with only his bottom set of teeth. He told Solorio that farm work in Stockton pays $11 to $12 an hour. Solorio countered: “Look, we are paying $14.50 now, but we are going up to $16.” The man nodded skeptically.
Solorio moved on to two men huddled nearby, and returned quickly. “They were drug addicts,” he said. “And, they didn’t have a car.”
Before the day was through, Solorio would make the same pitch to dozens of men and women, approaching a taco truck, a restaurant and a homeless encampment. Time was short: He needed to find 100 workers to fill his ranks by April 1, when grapevines begin to grow and need constant attention.
Solorio is one of a growing number of agricultural businessmen who say they face an urgent shortage of workers. The flow of labor began drying up when President Obama tightened the border. Now President Trump is promising to deport more people, raid more companies and build a wall on the southern border.
That has made California farms a proving ground for the Trump team’s theory that by cutting off the flow of immigrants they will free up more jobs for American-born workers and push up their wages.
So far, the results aren’t encouraging for farmers or domestic workers.
Farmers are being forced to make difficult choices about whether to abandon some of the state’s hallmark fruits and vegetables, move operations abroad, import workers under a special visa or replace them altogether with machines.
Growers who can afford it have already begun raising worker pay well beyond minimum wage. Wages for crop production in California increased by 13% from 2010 to 2015, twice as fast as average pay in the state, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Today, farmworkers in the state earn about $30,000 a year if they work full time, about half the overall average pay in California. Most work fewer hours.
Some farmers are even giving laborers benefits normally reserved for white-collar professionals, like 401(k) plans, health insurance, subsidized housing and profit-sharing bonuses. Full-timers at Silverado Farming, for example, get most of those sweeteners, plus 10 paid vacation days, eight paid holidays, and can earn their hourly rate to take English classes.
But the raises and new perks have not tempted native-born Americans to leave their day jobs for the fields. Nine in 10 agriculture workers in California are still foreign born, and more than half are undocumented, according to a federal survey.
Instead, companies growing high-value crops, like Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Napa, are luring employees from fields in places like Stockton that produce cheaper wine grapes or less profitable fruits and vegetables.
Growers who can’t raise wages are losing their employees and dealing with it by mechanizing, downsizing or switching to less labor-intensive crops.
Jeff Klein is doing all of the above. Last year Klein, a fourth-generation Stockton farmer, ran a mental ledger, trying to sort out the pros and cons of persevering in the wine business or quitting. He couldn’t make the math work.
Wineries pay Klein a tiny fraction of what they pony up for the same grape variety grown in Napa, and the rising cost of labor meant he was losing money on his vineyards. So in October, Klein decided to rip out 113,000 Chardonnay grapevines that once blanketed land his family has owned for decades. Now they lay heaped into hundreds of piles, waiting to be taken to the dump.
“I try to make any decision I make not emotional. When you’re running a business, it has to be a financial decision,” he says, sifting through the mangled metal posts.
Five years ago, Klein had a crew of 100 workers pruning, tying and suckering his grapevines. Wineries paid $700 for a ton of grapes, and Klein could make a solid profit paying $8 an hour, the minimum wage.
Last year he could barely get together 45 laborers, and his grapes sold for only $350 per ton. Klein knew his vines were done for when California passed laws raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2023 and requiring daily overtime for field laborers.
“There’s not enough guys, and everybody is fighting for everybody else’s guys,” he says. “In Napa and Sonoma, they’re getting $2,000 a ton [for grapes]. So, those guys can afford to pay $15. For me, I’m just trying to break even.”
Although Trump earned Klein’s vote, he worries that recent executive orders ratcheting up deportation plans and calling for a wall are putting a chokehold on an already tight pool of workers.
“That’s killing our labor force,” says the 35-year-old grower.
Already, fewer Mexicans had been willing to risk border crossings as security and deportations escalated under the Obama Administration. At the same time, Mexico’s own economy was mushrooming, offering decent jobs for people who stayed behind.
Klein says he’ll spend the next five years planting almond and olive trees, which require a fraction of the human labor.
With the grapevines he has left, Klein is doing what he can to pare his crews. Last year, he bought a leaf puller for $50,000, which turns the delicate process of culling grapevine canopies into an exercise in brute force. The puller hooks onto a tractor and, like an oddly shaped vacuum cleaner, sucks leaves from grapevines.
He used to spend $100 an acre culling the canopies, which allows the right amount of sunlight to hit the grapes and turn them into sugar balls. Now, he says, “It will cost me 20 bucks, and I can get rid of some labor.”
About 80 miles west in Napa, growers aren’t facing quite the same challenge. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Napa go for nearly $6,900 per ton, 10 times more than in San Joaquin County.
That’s the reason that Napa County pays its farmworkers $41,940 a year, the highest in California, our analysis of federal data shows.
That’s also why Leovijildo Martinez clambers into a van around 4:40 a.m. every morning to travel from Stockton to the Napa Valley.
By 6:30 a.m. he is on a Napa vineyard, and 12 hours later, he returns to his two-bedroom apartment.
“You get home, you shower, you eat a couple of tortillas with whatever is here,” Martinez says. He gets to see his kids’ faces and give them a hug before turning in at 9:30 p.m. They still complain about not seeing him enough.
“It’s hard for me as a man and as a father,” he says.
But the commute is paying off. A year ago, the 31-year-old from Mexico was earning $14.75 an hour doing the same work for a different Napa company. He joined Silverado in April and now he’s making $19.50 working vineyards that produce grapes for a winery whose bottles go for about $300.
“Everything in Napa is different. They treat you differently there, they don’t pressure you, and they respect the law,” he says. “If you work here, in Stockton, you don’t have enough money.”
According to the economic theory behind Trump’s immigration crackdown, Americans should be following Martinez’s van into the fields.
“The law of supply and demand doesn’t stop being true just because you’re talking about people,” says George Borjas, a Harvard economist and prominent foe of unfettered immigration. “[Farmers] have had an almost endless supply of low-skill workers for a long time, and now they are finding it difficult to transition to a situation where they don’t.”
Borjas believes the ones who reap the rewards of immigration are employers — not just farmers, but restaurant owners and well-to-do homeowners who hire landscapers and housekeepers. The people who suffer most are American workers, who contend with more competition for jobs and lower pay.
But Silverado, the farm labor contracting company in Napa, has never had a white, American-born person take an entry-level gig, even after the company increased hourly wages to $4 above the minimum. And Silverado is far from unique.
U.S. workers filled just 2% of a sample of farm labor vacancies advertised in 1996, according to a report published by the Labor Department’s office of inspector general. “I don’t think anybody would dispute that that’s roughly the way it is now” as well, says Philip Martin, an economist at UC Davis and one of the country’s leading experts on agriculture.
Indeed, Chalmers R. Carr III, the president of Titan Farms, a South Carolina peach giant, told lawmakers at a 2013 hearing that he advertised 2,000 job openings from 2010 through 2012. Carr said he was paying $9.39, $2 more than the state’s minimum wage at the time.
He hired 483 U.S. applicants, slightly less than a quarter of what he needed; 109 didn’t show up on the first day. Another 321 of them quit, “the vast majority in the first two days,” Carr testified. Only 31 lasted for the entire peach season.
Borjas, the Harvard economist, says that it may just be that wages are still too low. “Believe me, if the wages were really, really high, you and I would be lining up,” Borjas says.
Or perhaps farms are just not a place where native-born Americans want to work. The job is seasonal, so laborers have to alternate between long stretches without any income and then months of 60-hour weeks. They work in extreme heat and cold, and spend all day bending over to reach vegetables or climbing up and down ladders to pluck fruit in trees.
“You don’t need a deep analysis to understand why farm work wouldn’t be attractive to young Americans,” says Martin, the agriculture expert.
If farmers upped the average wage to, say, $25 an hour, people born here might think twice. But that’s a pipe dream, many argue.
“Well before we got to $25, there would be machines out in the fields, doing pruning or harvesting, or we would lose crops,” Martin says.
Already, strawberry growers in Ventura are experimenting with robots that plant seedlings, and growers in Central Coast counties are culling, weeding and even harvesting heads of lettuce with machines. At the outer edge, engineers are trying to teach machines to pick fruit.
Brad Goehring, a fourth-generation farmer, is re-engineering his vineyards so they can be harvested entirely by machines.
The 52-year-old owns 500 acres of wine grapes in Lodi, near Stockton. He tends another 10,000 or so acres of vineyards that belong to several clients across Northern California.
Being the boss used to be fun for Goehring, but his labor problems are wearying.
In the last five years, he has advertised in local newspapers and accepted more than a dozen unemployed applicants from the state’s job agency. Even when the average rate on his fields was $20 an hour, the U.S.-born workers lost interest, fast.
“We’ve never had one come back after lunch,” he says.
For now, Goehring is betting his future on 10 floppy rows of Malbec vines. The vines, visible from the slender country road that borders Goehring’s house, were among his first experiments in mechanization.
About five years ago, Goehring changed the wiring holding up parts of his vines so that no metal stakes exceed the height of the wire. The setup allows for a machine to prune the top of the vine, as well as both sides.
“I think we can eliminate, I’m just guessing, 85% of the labor on these new vineyards,” he says, reducing pruning costs from $300 per acre, on average, to $80. He plans to keep spending more on machinery, like his $350,000 tractor-like vehicle that shakes grapes off the vine and catches them before they fall to the ground.
Now, he’s replanting entire ranches for clients interested in machine-managed vineyards.
Goehring’s long game is hundreds of acres of wine grapes harvested without ever touching human hands. If that doesn’t work, he’d reluctantly replace it all with almonds.
“If we have to, we’d go there,” he says. If filled with nut trees, his entire property could be managed, he says, by three employees.
Follow me @NatalieKitro on Twitter
Times staff writer Ben Welsh contributed to this report.
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