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Salinas Valley Deals With Farmworker Shortage; Fields Left Unpicked

SALINAS (KPIX 5) – Its harvest time in the Salinas Valley, and produce from the "Salad Bowl of the World" is ready for the dinner table. But in this the land of plenty, there is a big shortage of farmworkers.

Luis Hidalgo from Guanajuato, Mexico was taking a break from picking iceberg lettuce. He told KPIX 5's Len Ramirez in Spanish that it's harder to cross the U.S.-Mexico border for people to come here and work.

It's a trend the growers have been watching for the last few years.

"It's been getting progressively worse to the extent where now crews are down 25 to 30 percent," said Jim Bogart of the Grower – Shippers Association.

Bogart said with so few workers, not all fields can be picked, so perfectly good food is going to waste.

"Crops need to be harvested at a specific time.  And if you don't have enough workers to harvest those crops, they sit there and they rot in the fields," Bogart said.

U.S. fruit and vegetable production is down 9.5 percent this year. But farmworker wages are up as growers try to attract and retain workers.

Entry-level jobs are now paying $10 to $11 an hour, up about 50 cents this summer.

Even though the pay might be slightly better, it's still backbreaking work out in the hot sun. And so many farmworkers are starting to find jobs in other parts of the economy that are more stable and even better paying, leading to an even greater shortage.

"Agriculture needs access to a legal, stabile workforce when they need them and in the numbers they need them," Bogart said.

Growers continue to push for a long term solution such as a guest worker program. In the meantime, it's longer hours for the farmworkers who are here like Luis Hidalgo. Instead of going home this late in the afternoon, he went back for another shift.

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