Few Americans seem eager to try their hands at farm work

Stephen Colbert told a House panel about his day as a farmworker.
Stephen Colbert told a House panel about his day as a farmworker. (Jay Mallin)
By Garance Burke
Sunday, October 10, 2010

VISALIA, CALIF. - As the economy has tanked during the past two years, a debate has raged about whether immigrants are taking jobs that Americans want. Here, amid the sweltering vineyards of the largest farm state, the answer is no.

Few Americans apply for jobs harvesting fruits and vegetables in California, where one of every eight people is out of work, according to government data for a federal seasonal farmworker program analyzed by the Associated Press.

And the few who do apply through official channels usually do not stay on in the fields, a point that comedian Stephen Colbert - dressed as a field hand - has alluded to in recent broadcasts on Comedy Central.

"It's just not something that most Americans are going to pack up their bags and move here to do," said Steve Fortin, a farmer who pays foreign workers $10.25 an hour to trim strawberry plants for six weeks each summer at his nursery near the Nevada border.

Fortin has spent $3,000 this year ensuring that domestic workers have first dibs on his jobs in the sparsely populated stretch of the state, advertising in newspapers and on an electronic job registry. But he has not had any takers, and only one farmer in the state hired anyone using a little-known, little-used program to hire foreign farmworkers the legal way - through guest-worker visas.

Since January, California farmers have posted ads for 1,160 farmworker positions open to U.S. citizens and legal residents seeking work.

Only 233 people applied after being linked with the jobs through unemployment offices in California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona. One grower brought on 36 U.S citizens or legal permanent residents. No one else hired any.

"It surprises me, too, but we do put the information out there for the public," said Lucy Ruelas, who manages the California Employment Development Department's agricultural services unit. "If an applicant sees the reality of the job, they might change their mind."

The California figures represent a small sample of efforts to recruit domestic workers under the H-2A Guest Worker Program, but they provide a snapshot of how hard it is to lure Americans to farm labor - and to get growers to use the program.

Fortin is one of just 23 of the estimated 40,900 full-time farmers and ranchers in California who petitioned this year to bring in foreign farmworkers through legal means, the government data showed. The Labor Department did not respond to a request for comment about the findings.

In the field

More than half of the farmworkers in the United States are illegal immigrants, according to the Labor Department, and another fourth of them were born outside the country. Proponents of tougher immigration laws - as well as the United Farm Workers of America - say that farmers are used to a cheap, largely undocumented workforce and that if growers raised wages and improved working conditions, the jobs would attract Americans.

So far, a tongue-in-cheek effort by Colbert and the UFW to get Americans to take farm jobs has been more effective in attracting applicants than the official channels.

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