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Immigration crackdown exacerbates organic-farm labor shortage

WATSONVILLE, Calif. -- For every fragrant bunch of parsley that foreman Eber Diaz picked, he stopped to rip out handfuls of thick-stemmed weeds crowding the crop.

Normally, these fields would be weed-free and workers would move easily up and down the rows, harvesting organic vegetables and herbs meant for dinner tables around the country. But increased patrolling along the border with Mexico, and easier, higher-paying jobs in the city have made farmworkers scarce.

Farms across the country are feeling the pinch, but organic farms like Lakeside Organic Gardens in the lush Pajaro Valley that grow labor-intensive, hand-picked crops are especially suffering. Fields go untended, and acres have to be torn up because there's no one to harvest them.

"It's heartbreaking," farmer Dick Peixoto said.

Farmers like Peixoto readily admit their reliance on immigrants, legal or not, and they're watching Washington's border crackdown with apprehension.

More than half the nation's approximately 1.8 million farmworkers are here illegally, though growers in California believe the percentage here is probably much higher.

The situation is so bad Peixoto has been forced to tear out nearly 30 acres of vegetables, and has about 100 acres compromised by weeds. He estimated his loss so far to be about $200,000 - worse than anything he's seen in his 31 years of farming.

Growers check documents provided by prospective workers to the best of their ability, all the while knowing that fakes are easy to find and that the industry couldn't make it without the labor of undocumented workers.

This dependence on immigrant labor has turned farmers into strong advocates of immigration reform. They're pushing hard for a program that would allow guest workers to enter the country legally to work with employers who are waiting, as spelled out in one of the proposals that's stalled in Washington.

"The government says we have to get rid of these undocumented workers, but they don't have an answer for us," Peixoto said. "How are we supposed to do this?"

Traditional farmers - even growers of delicate, hand-picked crops like the berries of the Pajaro Valley - can get by with up to 20 percent fewer workers.

Their crops might hang on the vine a little later, and they might have to shell out extra cash to keep workers in the field longer. But at least they can wipe out the weeds with chemicals, and focus their work force on harvesting and other tasks that can't be put off.

Conventional farmer John Eiskamp hired 320 workers for the harvest at his 180-acre raspberry and blackberry farm. He could have used an extra 30 to 50 workers, but made do by paying workers to put in 12- or 14-hour days for weeks during the peak of harvest, and postponing trellising, weeding and covering the plants.

The work is "delicate, labor intensive, and very time consuming," he said. "It's a challenging industry even without labor shortage and heat waves."

With stiff competition for workers, organic growers face the extra challenge of trying to lure workers to do particularly backbreaking tasks. Members of Diaz's crew were bending at the waist to pull weeds by hand, a task that needs to be done several times during the growing season. And harvesting is done the same way.

"No one wants to do this work," Diaz said. "I've never seen a situation where it was so difficult to find people."

The labor shortage is a serious problem, and it's getting worse as the government adds more law enforcement to the border without creating avenues for workers to come in legally, said Tim Chelling, spokesman for Western Growers, which represents about 3,000 fruit and vegetable farmers.

Some growers are moving parts of their operations to Mexico; others, like Peixoto, who have invested years in getting their land clear of chemicals so they can grow organically, are having to tough it out, he said.

"We need the workers; they need the work," he said. "We just need to figure out some way to make this happen for everyone."


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On the Net:

Lakeside Organic Gardens: http://www.lakesideorganic.com

Western Growers: http://www.wga.com

Community Alliance with Family Farmers: http://www.caff.org