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Central California growers struggle with farmworker shortage

Kevin Steward has spent more than a quarter-century in agriculture, much of that growing grapes for wineries. He's always been able to rely on seasonal workers to tend the vines and bring in the year's harvest.

But this year, workers are harder to come by.

"I could use 30 men," Steward said. "We'll get 'er done, but I can't find anybody."

Growers around the Central Valley are wringing their hands as they struggle to find the manpower they need, though the situation appears better in Stanislaus County.

Anti-immigration laws and policies, an aging population and even a raging drug war south of the border are contributing to a slowdown in the pipeline of Mexican workers.

Steward, president of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, said he has only a fraction of the 40 workers he depends on to tend the 1,000 acres of vineyards he manages in Amador and San Joaquin counties.

"I've never seen it this bad," he said, though he's heard there are "a lot of good workers who are busy picking cherries." But cherry growers say their labor situation is only marginally better.

Laborers available to harvest San Joaquin County's lucrative cherry crop are down as much as 30 percent, according to the county's farm bureau.Situation OK in Stanislaus

Stanislaus County has not had much trouble, said Wayne Zipser, executive manager of its farm bureau. The county is the nation's leading producer of apricots, a hand-harvested crop now in season, but its cherry crop is much smaller than San Joaquin County's.

Stanislaus relies on hand labor for its sizable peach crop, which will start to be harvested next month. Ceres-area grower Scott Long said he has not had a problem finding workers.

"We're fortunate enough right now to be able to cover everything, and hopefully that goes through harvest time," he said.

The county's grape crop is mostly harvested by machine, unlike premium regions. So too are the far more extensive almond and walnut orchards.California Farm Bureau officials say the labor force typically peaks at about 450,000 in September.

Farm labor contractors saw warning signs as early as last year's grape harvest when a late season stretched the labor supply to the limit, said Guadalupe Sandoval, managing director of the Sacramento-based California Farm Labor Contractor Association.

"Things didn't ripen until late, so everybody needed workers at the same time," Sandoval said.

Reasons for the brake on immigrant labor are many.

Prices asked by the "coyotes" who smuggle workers across the border continue to rise — as high as $7,500, Sandoval is told. And, he said, "There's no guarantee of getting across. The coyotes may take your money. Maybe your life, as well."

The narco-terrorism plaguing Mexico makes a treacherous journey north even more perilous.

Fewer crossing the border

Jeff Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., said surveys tracking the labor force "show a huge drop in the number of people setting out from Mexico. It's not surprising that that's having an effect on agriculture."

Mexico's demographics are changing, too, said Bryan Little, director of farm labor affairs at the California Farm Bureau Federation. Families are getting smaller and the population is aging, shrinking the number of workers crossing the border, he said.

Lawmakers have battled for years about various immigration reform strategies, including the guest-worker programs favored by many in the agricultural industry.

But Chuck Dudley, president of the Yolo County Farm Bureau, said the implications for American food consumers are severe if shortages worsen."If you don't get it planted, picked and packed, it won't get to the table," he said.