Farmer says his strawberry harvest depends on immigration bill

(CBS News) VENTURA, Calf. - On Thursday lawmakers reached a bipartisan breakthrough on immigration reform. Four Republican and four Democratic senators agreed on elements of a bill that would put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.

It would also create visas for migrant farm workers -- a deal that can't come soon enough for California farmers.

It's peak season for Southern California strawberries. The weather is perfect and so is the ripe, red fruit. But as Edgar Terry surveys his Ventura County fields, he sees red ink.

Terry, a farmer, says he is going to have to throw a lot of his crop away.

"The strawberries are ripening faster than we can harvest them," Terry said. "There is a lack of farm labor to be able to harvest all of the crops that we grow here in California."

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Much of the fruit ends up on the ground because there aren't enough workers to pick it. He can't find enough, even though the most productive can earn as much as $30 an hour during peak season.

"Right now, we have about 70, 70 to 75 [workers]," Terry said. "We have a need for about 100 at this location. We're about 25 percent short today."

This year, the Western Growers Association anticipated 15 percent fewer farm workers in California and Arizona, two states that grow half of the country's produce.

The Growers Associations says most U.S. farm workers come from Mexico, and that the worker shortage is due to a rise in deportations and difficulties crossing the border.

CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker and farmer Edgar Terry on Terry's strawberry farm in Ventura, Calif.
CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker and farmer Edgar Terry on Terry's strawberry farm in Ventura, Calif. CBS News

But with so many Americans who need jobs, why would Terry bring people in from other countries to do the work Americans?

"Even if you go back 70, 80 years it was very, very difficult to get unemployed American workers out to work on the farms. For some reason our type of farming here in California, people thought it was beneath them to come work in a field," Terry said. "Basically, 100 percent of our workers are farm workers from across the border."

He says if Washington doesn't come up with a better way to import farm labor, the U.S. will be importing all its food. That's why Terry is closely watching immigration negotiations in Congress.

If he could get their ear, Terry said he would tell lawmakers, "Come out here and harvest strawberries for me."

"It would probably be more productive than what you're doing in Washington," he said of Congress.

Still, he hopes this time all the talk in Washington bears fruit.