Commentary: Regulations, costs worry aspiring California farmer

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Over time, the cost of living in the Golden State has increased relentlessly, repercussions for improper documentation have grown more severe, and higher wages in other industries are drawing more workers away from agriculture. Even with the rise in H-2A worker visas in California and across the country, finding willing hands to help plant, tend and harvest crops on America’s farmland is harder with each passing season.

For the first time in my life, I fear the future of agriculture. I fear the fields will go fallow. I fear the lunchtime chatter will go silent. I fear the colorful bandanas and hats shading faces will disappear. I fear my favorite local fruits and vegetables will become a thing of the past. I fear the extinction of the people and industry I fell in love with.

I am often asked why I would choose a career in agriculture. For me the answer has always been easy: I fell in love with the hands and hearts that characterize farming.

My love stems from birth; I am truly a farmer’s daughter. I come from a long line of farmers, fourth generation on both sides of my family. As a child, I trailed behind my father’s footsteps, struggling to keep up with his long stride through furrows.

As I got older, I put my own hands to work, only to learn they didn’t stand a chance. I was left in the dust of hoeing and thinning crews. I laughed with the ladies sorting green beans, providing comic relief as the guera, blondie, trying to keep up.

But now, in the midst of our peak season, my fears for agriculture are being realized more rapidly than anticipated. Due to challenging immigration laws, the California farmer cannot find hands.

In addition, the designated work hours and days in a week have also been revised. Changes in state agricultural overtime laws will be phased in, reducing the number of hours in a day and in a week before overtime pay is required. At the same time, the state minimum wage will ratchet up until, by 2023, it reaches $15 an hour in all circumstances.

Sadly, California farmers and ranchers cannot sustain the rising costs, and many may be forced to cut back production or employ more crews to do the work. Thus, an attempt to bolster farm laborers may have a reverse effect, and result in individual workers getting fewer hours and making less money than before.

How does a farmer do more with less, or at least keep up? Technology is providing one answer. Many hands to make light work may no longer be needed, due to automation. Crews of 20 to 30 workers are now being replaced by one machine. Take, for example, the Mantis Thinning Rover, operated by one person, which can swiftly hoe and thin a field of leafy greens that once required dozens of workers to tend.

In 2017, we romanticize a picturesque, farm-to-fork process during which farmers lovingly handpick fresh produce. But most people are unwilling to do the work. With the current labor situation, we will be abruptly awakened from our farming fantasy.

I was once excited to return to the farm I left, but I’m now afraid I won’t recognize it.

(Mary Alameda is interning this summer in the American Farm Bureau Federation Communications Department. She is a senior studying agricultural communications at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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