A crackdown on illegal immigration, more job opportunities in Mexico and rising fees charged by smugglers are reducing the number of workers who cross the U.S. border illegally each year to help make up more than 60 percent of U.S. farmworkers.
The American Farm Bureau Federation projects $5 billion to $9 billion in annual produce-industry losses because of the labor shortages, which have become commonplace for farmers such as Torrey Farms Inc. of Elba, N.Y., , who said there were 10 applicants for every job five years ago.
With the cherry harvest under way in south-central Washington state, the Sage Bluff farmworker housing compound in Malaga is only half full, with nowhere near the 270 workers it can accommodate.
It’s a problem that farmers in agriculture powerhouse Manatee County have shared in recent years. Manatee growers periodically struggle to find enough workers to help with their harvest, and have left crops in the field because there weren’t enough workers.
In California, farmers are reporting labor shortages of 30 percent to 40 percent, said Bryan Little, the director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He said some cherry growers had left acres unpicked because they didn’t have enough workers.
“Generally, what I hear is that if you need 10 crews to harvest 40 acres of strawberries, you only have seven,” he said. “If you need a crew of 10 people, then you only have six or seven. It varies, depending on where you are in the state.”
Border patrol agents no longer pose the biggest risk for Mexican workers who cross the U.S. border illegally, Cunha said. Drug cartels and human traffickers now prey on illegal immigrants, forcing them to transport drugs and kidnapping their relatives to make sure they comply.