SKELTON: Lack of immigration fix leaves crops rotting in California fields

  • 11/23/2006: A9: ON THE FARM: Miguel Ortega walks through rows of tomato plants earlier this month at the Petaluma farm where he works. His crew picks and cleans the tomatoes before Whole Foods picks them up.

    PC: Miguel Ortega walks through the tomato farm as his workers pick and clean tomatoes in preparation for Whole Foods to pick them up in Petaluma. (The Press Democrat) / Crista Jeremiason) 11/9/06

Except for illegal immigrants, no group has more at stake in the national fight over immigration reform than California farmers.

"It doesn't pay to plant a product if you can't harvest it," noted Mark Teixeira of Santa Maria, who said he had to let 22acres of vegetables rot last year because he couldn't find enough field hands to gather the crop. "That hurts."

As security has tightened along the California-Mexican border, the flow of illegal immigrant labor into the nation's most productive agriculture state has slowed significantly, farm interests say.

"It's very difficult to find crews compared to three or four years ago," said Greg Wegis, a fifth-generation Kern County farmer who grows cherries, almonds, pistachios and tomatoes, among other crops.

Last year, Wegis had to cancel a cherry pick for lack of labor. "It cost me several thousand dollars."

"Migrant workers are moving to other states that are friendlier and where there's less likelihood of getting harassed and deported," he said.

"Obviously (the feds) are doing a better job at the border. Which is great. But it definitely is putting the squeeze on our industry."

Any time some demagogic politician bellows about rounding up all the illegal immigrants and shipping them back to their own country, it sends chills up farmers' spines.

Roughly two-thirds of the state's crop workers "are not properly documented," said Rayne Pegg, who heads the federal policy division of the California Farm Bureau.

"I'm not proud to say I hire illegal aliens," said Teixeira, whose family has been farming for five generations. "Everyone has to show 'documentation.' But I don't work for (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Bottom line, if I have to verify everyone, I'm not going to be able to harvest my crop."

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