Few Americans seem eager to try their hands at farm work

By Garance Burke
Sunday, October 10, 2010; A9

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.

The UFW in June launched the "Take Our Jobs Campaign," inviting people to go online and apply.

About 8,600 people filled out an application form, but only seven have been placed in farm jobs, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said.

Colbert told a House congressional committee last month that spending a day picking beans in Upstate New York for an episode was "really, really hard."

Colbert's comedic activism makes a point Fortin is familiar with. Some Americans referred for jobs at his nursery could not do the grueling work.

"A few years ago when domestic workers were referred here, we saw absentee problems, and we had people asking for time off after they had just started," he said. "Some were actually planting the plants upside down."

Economists have long debated whether local workers would take jobs in the field if wages rose. Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Davis, said that because so few farmers participate in the H-2A program, the data's limitations make it hard to draw national conclusions. Under current conditions, the figures show the workforce will remain almost entirely immigrant, he said.

"Recruitment of U.S. workers in this program doesn't work well primarily because employers have already identified who they want to bring in from abroad," Martin said. "I don't think a lot of U.S. workers are going out there looking for a seasonal job paying the minimum wage or a dollar more."

The Labor Department collects the same data about H-2A visa applications for all 50 states but does not make it publicly available. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Associated Press, the agency said it would provide some records for nearly $11,000, but it was not clear whether the information would show how many Americans had applied for farm jobs nationwide.

Flagging reform effort

Even California officials say the guest-worker program needs fixing, despite a reform effort announced in February by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis that was meant to boost efforts to fill crop-picking jobs first with domestic workers.

Benjamin Reynosa, who was picking ruby-colored grapes in 90-degree heat near Fowler on a recent morning, said he often is the only U.S. legal resident on seasonal crews. He said most people hear about the jobs through word of mouth or signs tacked outside rural stores, not the electronic registry.

"I've been working in agriculture for 22 years, and I can tell you there are very few gringos out here," said Reynosa, 49, of Orange Cove. "If people know English, they go to work in packinghouses or sit in an office."

In Tulare County, where the unemployment rate is above 16 percent, job seekers on a recent morning crowded around computers at the job development agency. Staff appeared unaware that the guest-worker program required them to advertise the jobs.

"We just don't advertise those kinds of farmworker jobs," said Sandi Miller, program coordinator for the county's workforce investment board.

Amid the U.S. Army recruitment fliers posted in the lobby, however, under the heading "HOT JOB LEADS," was an ad for a farmworker position. The employer expressed a preference for someone with Spanish fluency and tractor maintenance skills.

Miller said it was the first time she had seen such a notice. She had not received any applications, she said.

- Associated Press

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