California Farm Workers Look to Other Jobs

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California is facing what some are calling a dire shortage of farm workers to harvest the region's fruit and vegetables. Many farm workers have left the fields to take less-grueling, better-paying jobs in construction and other business sectors.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

California is facing what some are calling a dire shortage of farm workers to harvest the region's fruit and vegetables. The rich fields of central California are a major source of America's produce. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, many farm workers have left those fields for better jobs elsewhere.

(Soundbite of grape harvesting)

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

Harvesting grapes for raisins is one of the most labor-intensive jobs in California agriculture. Field workers cut bunches of green grapes and lay them on paper trays and let the hot sun turn them into raisins. Or the grapes can be laid on a trellis to be dried on the vine, which permits mechanical harvesting. Either way, farm labor contractor Dolores Enriques(ph) needs workers to bring in this harvest before the September rains.

Ms. DOLORES ENRIQUES (Labor Contractor): (Spanish spoken)

GONZALES: As she directs her workers to the vines, she says she's finding fewer good hands than in years past.

Ms. ENRIQUES: A few ranchers have called and told me if I could take them at least 30 people, but they only have 20, when other times, we could come up with 100 people.

GONZALES: Enriques is supervising a crew of six women. One of her workers, 40-year-old Virginia Nicolas(ph), says the fact that there are so few men in the fields is no accident.

Ms. VIRGINIA NICOLAS (Field Worker): (Through Translator) There's a lot of construction going on around here. They're building lots of new homes, so that's where the workers went. The men are working in construction.

GONZALES: Workers and growers throughout the Central Valley tell the same story. Field work pays little more than the minimum wage. By the most conservative estimates, half of these laborers are illegal immigrants. And many--No one knows exactly how many--are migrating to the booming construction trades, where workers start at $10 an hour.

(Soundbite of construction)

GONZALES: In a brand-new housing development on the north side of Fresno, workers are nailing down the plywood roof on a newly framed house. Next door, an older man in his 40s stirs a rotating barrel of stucco plaster. Armondo Acosto(ph), a father of four from the Mexican state of Jalisco, says after 20 years of picking fruit, he left the fields last October.

Mr. ARMONDO ACOSTO (Construction Worker): (Spanish spoken)

GONZALES: He says, `Depending on what a guy does, he can earn a lot or a little, but I can earn $400 a week here. So it's better here. You can work a little harder, but you can earn a little more, too.'

John Hudson, an official with the Building and Construction Trades, estimates that about 30 percent of workers building homes in the Central Valley are undocumented, and, yes, there's no mystery why they're leaving the fields.

Mr. JOHN HUDSON (Building and Construction Trades): Wouldn't you? I mean, you get to be a journeyman electrician, you make $27 an hour, and, after 30 years, you get a $60,000 retirement for the rest of your life--Isn't that the American Dream? I mean, isn't that what this country started off with, people wanting to work a little harder to get ahead and have a little bit of freedom? I can't find anything wrong with that.

Mr. PHILIP MARTIN (Agricultural Economist): Farm workers have always looked at farm work as a job, not a career.

GONZALES: Agricultural economist Philip Martin compares farm labor to a revolving door, one that spins faster when the non-farm economy is booming. At the same time, fewer immigrants coming into California's Central Valley has had an impact.

Mr. MARTIN: With fewer people coming in, or people coming in, looking further afield quicker, that big replenishment pool in agriculture is probably not as big and fluid as it was a decade ago.

GONZALES: Which is why the ag industry is one of the leading voices for a guest worker program, proposals for which are stalled in the congressional debate over immigration reform. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): This is NPR News.

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