American in an olive orchard? |

American in an olive orchard?

Juliana Barbassa
** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND OF DEC. 3-4 ** FILE ** Olive farmer Don Stutsman mulls over his olive crop, Feb. 6, 2001, at his Exeter, Calif., orchard. Stutsman usually finishes his harvest by the end of October. But in 2005, a number of unusual factors have collided to leave fruit hanging longer, jeopardizing his crop and highlighting the industry's dependence on illegal immigrants. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

EXETER, Calif. (AP) – Pushing back the silvery-green canopy of an olive tree, Don Stutsman examines clusters of ripening fruit and wonders whether he’ll have enough hands to pick the blushing berries.He usually finishes his harvest by the end of October. But this year a number of unusual factors have collided to leave fruit hanging longer, jeopardizing his crop and highlighting the industry’s dependence on illegal immigrants.A booming construction industry is offering better pay, and beefed-up patrols along the Mexican border has made it harder for unauthorized workers to reach farms, offering a preview of what would happen if this source of labor dried up.Men and women who crossed the border illegally – mostly from Mexico – may number as high as 20 million, with 12 million to 15 million holding jobs, according to analysts at Bear Stearns in New York. An analysis by Barron’s estimated they account for about $970 billion of the goods and services produced by the real economy.While other industries – service, construction, food processing – have larger total numbers of undocumented immigrants, the majority of farmworkers are illegal immigrants.They make up 53 percent of the approximately 1.8 million farmworkers in the country, up from about 12 percent in 1989-1990, according to the Labor Department’s Agricultural Workers Survey.”The fact is, the fresh produce industry couldn’t exist without a foreign work force, but we don’t have a mechanism to bring in foreign workers,” said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers Association, which represents more than 3,000 farmers in Arizona and California.Nassif is asking federal lawmakers for a temporary program to allow workers into the country to pick winter vegetables and avert a labor shortage he says could cost the industry billions. And like other farm representatives, he wants a guest worker program that can provide the industry with a stable work force.

Looking for better payStutsman acknowledges some of the 30 men and women in his orchard might have shown him forged documents.”We’re not policemen,” he said, frustrated. “These things are easy to fake. And there just isn’t anyone else who’ll do it.”For decades, farmers relied on undocumented immigrants and the government largely looked the other way as they took some of the most physically demanding and lowest paying jobs.Pesticides frequently sicken farmworkers, machinery is menacing, and some have fallen to their deaths in manure pits. This summer, heat exposure killed one farmworker in California, and the labor board is investigating whether three other deaths were heat-related. A 2004 Associated Press investigation found that Mexican workers are 80 percent more likely to die on the job than are native-born workers.Field hands earn a prevailing wage of $7 to $8 per hour, often without benefits, and undocumented workers earn about 10 percent less, according to the Labor Department survey.With construction jobs in California’s rapidly developing inland cities offering year-round employment starting at $10 an hour, many farmworkers have decided to try their luck in other jobs.When Frank Flores switched from picking fruit to packing it at a Fowler plant, he went from earning minimum wage for seasonal jobs to $11.50 an hour full-time. The reason was simple, he said: “I had a family, and needed more money.”Some of the shortages farmers are seeing could be related to stepped up enforcement at the border in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The U.S. Border Patrol, which reported stopping 905,065 people in 2003, said it caught 1,077,598 in the first eight months of this year.It’s hard to measure how many make it into the United States. Those workers are not supposed to be here, and California’s Labor & Workforce Development Agency can’t keep count.While some farms have had to scramble, the situation isn’t crippling. Some growers struggled with incomplete crews. Others found that hiring workers would cost them more than leaving the crop unpicked, said Jim Hanzen, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association.”We can talk about individual disasters, not an industry crisis,” said Hanzen.’We’re struggling here’As the apple harvest winds up in Washington with packers boxing the last Granny Smiths, lettuce farmers in Arizona’s Yuma Valley are thinning plants in preparation for harvest – and noticing there are fewer workers, Nassif said.The Yuma Valley and California’s Imperial Valley together grow 90 percent of the nation’s winter produce. Farmers said they needed 35,000 to 40,000 workers to gather this fall’s broccoli, cauliflower, celery and lettuce crops.Even farmworker advocates, who generally dismiss growers’ complaints of shortages as attempts to ensure an oversupply of cheap labor, agreed that crews have been smaller this year.But the cause lies partly with poor working conditions, said United Farm Workers spokesman Marc Grossman.

“The pay is so low, the benefits almost nonexistent, and the conditions so harsh that many workers are not staying in agriculture,” said Grossman.It’s unclear how much farm wages would have to rise to attract Americans into an olive orchard, where men and women hike up 12-foot ladders, lugging up to 26 pounds of olives.If agriculture were forced to pay higher wages, small farms might fold, unable to compete with countries that have lower production costs. But consumers, who only spend 10 percent of their food budgets on fresh fruits and vegetables, would hardly notice, said Philip Martin, a labor economist with the University of California, Davis.And only a fraction of that money goes to farmers to cover their costs and make ends meet – 16 cents of every dollar spent on fruit, and 19 cents of every dollar spent on vegetables, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.Many domestic farmers who grew the olives that ended up in cans and jars already found that production costs outweigh profits, said Edin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council of California.While California olive oil is competing internationally by adopting high-density planting and machine harvesting, the table olive business, unable to mechanize, is losing ground, Hester said.Almost all green olives eaten in the United States are imported. California still grows 59 percent of black table olives, but growers have removed 13,000 acres of orchards in the last 25 years ago, down to about 30,000 acres today.Dependent on immigrants, some growers are advocating for an improved guest worker program to bring in needed help. Some proposals, like those supported by farmworker advocates, include paths to U.S. residency. Another idea, like the one supported by Stutsman, would send workers home at the end of the season.”We’re struggling here,” said Stutsman. “We need a change in the worst way.”___

On the Net:Agricultural Worker Survey: Expenditure Survey: Economic Research Service:, Colorado

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