Immigration Least of Farmer's Worries

By Ruxandra Guidi
November 08, 2010

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Victor Gonzalez, the owner of Atkins Nursery, stands in front of his oldest chirimoya trees.

SAN DIEGO -- Victor Gonzalez is sitting behind his office desk at 9 a.m., taking a few dollars from a customer buying a bag full of avocados. His 21-year-old son, Victor Junior, is standing nearby, sifting through receipts.

It's a slow morning, but Gonzalez says it's been like this for days. One reason is their two main crops, avocado and citrus, aren't in season. But Gonzalez says their overall business is hurting. What was once a medium-sized wholesale farming operation in Fallbrook, is now little more than a father and son produce stand.

"A lot of the people move out of California, to New Mexico, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi," says Gonzalez. "We had close to 80 workers and everybody moved."

Gonzalez had to lay off a majority of his workers. Now he only has four workers left. They take care of all the fruit trees in the 21-acre nursery, harvest the produce and keep the pests at bay. It's not easy work -- there are no benefits or holidays, the pay is about $8 per hour and the turnover is high.

Many immigrants who get their start in the agriculture industry choose to leave for higher paying jobs in factories or casinos -- especially if they're in the U.S. legally.

Gonzalez is an exception to that rule. He came to California from Jalisco, Mexico, as a guest farm worker in 1969. He worked for a farm owner dubbed Mr. Avocado in Fallbrook for many years. When his boss died, Gonzalez bought the farm. At one point, he was one of the main suppliers of fruit trees to Home Depot. But he says that starting in the 1990s, much began to change in the farming industry.

"Now we have fruit from Chile; limes and guavas from Mexico," says Gonzalez, pointing to his own fruit tree seedlings in the greenhouse. "We used to get an average of about a $1 or $1.50 a pound on the guavas on the wholesale market. Right now we see the fruit 30 to 50 cents a pound. And the cost of growing them is very high."

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Gonzalez shows the young avocado trees inside his greenhouse.
Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Gonzalez chats with a customer and is followed by the farm dog, Chispita.

A tour of Gonzalez's farm shows there are many fruit trees waiting to be picked, and not enough workers to do the labor.

One of the workers, Jose Cruz Flores, has been working at the farm for 15 years. He's witnessed its ups and downs. But nothing compares to the challenges of today, he says.

"Now we have less of a demand for our products due to the economy," says Cruz Flores. "Besides, the water costs are getting higher. All this has meant that we have less workers on site."

Cruz Flores says the economic slump and the price of water have hurt the farm. He says he's one of many laborers who benefited from having steady work here. Recurring droughts and the rising cost of water affect small and medium-sized farms all along the border, and make it difficult for farm owners to hire more help.

James Gerber is a Professor of Economics at San Diego State University, focusing on border issues. He says it's in the interest of American farm owners to do whatever it takes to keep their workers -- documented and undocumented alike.

"They want access to this farm labor, American native-born workers are not taking these jobs," says Gerber. "So it seems to me that the political forces are in place that eventually there will be some sort of compromise that will create a guest worker program for farm labor, at least."

That compromise could lead to a guest worker program like the one that brought Victor Gonzalez to California in 1969, perhaps. The Gonzalez family says they've hired workers from Chile through the guest workers program in the past.

They would hire more today, if the process wasn't so cumbersome, bureaucratic and costly. By hiring undocumented workers, farmers like Gonzalez are able to keep labor costs down.

Gonzalez's son, Junior, says they often get dozens of requests per week by people looking for jobs. Many of them are undocumented, but that's not an issue for them.

"I guess we don't really see too many problems with that," says Junior, a hip-looking guy, seemingly out of place in this rural setting. "At least I don't see them."

For the Gonzalez family, the bigger issue at this point is not their workers' immigration status, but whether they can stay afloat to hire any workers at all.