Demand for local food is booming at the same time soaring labor costs are forcing more high-value fruit and vegetable production out of states like California, Arizona and Colorado and onto farms south of the border, according to two experts who work on agricultural labor issues.

Demand for local food is booming at the same time soaring labor costs are forcing more high-value fruit and vegetable production out of states like California, Arizona and Colorado and onto farms south of the border, according to two experts who work on agricultural labor issues.

Philip Martin, professor emeritus of ag economics at the University of California-Davis, and Guadalupe (Lupe) Sandoval, executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractors Association, say the shift is already happening and likely to intensify. Most of the recent agricultural expansion in Mexico has been financed by U.S. growers and shippers, who can produce four times the vine-ripened tomatoes there at a fraction of the cost. The two men made presentations recently on ag labor trends at the annual meeting of the Ag Relations Council.

Heavily urbanized states like California and Colorado are among the largest producers of fruit, vegetables and milk, industry segments that are especially labor intensive. They also tend to have skyrocketing housing and transportation costs.

Anti-immigrant sentiment, a decline in illegal immigration and an aging population among existing migrant workers are all feeding into a growing labor crisis.

“Follow-the-crop migrants have almost disappeared,” Martin said. “Meanwhile, the ag-related jobs in this state are increasing, not decreasing. Agriculture has to find a way to respond to this slowdown.”

With dwindling supplies come higher costs.

“We’re seeing the cost of labor going up even without the minimum wage going up,” Sandoval said.

Even so, raises to the minimum wage are on the way too. Legislation in states like California and Washington will boost the wage floor to levels Martin described as unprecedented. (Colorado is also in the process of phasing in higher minimums.)

California’s current glide path tops out at an hourly minimum of $15 by 2023. In addition, the state passed an overtime bill that will put added strain on agricultural employers. Labor already makes about a third of the cost to produce high value crops.

In the past, Martin said the minimum wage was about a third of the average worker’s salary. The new target would raise it to two-thirds.

“We’re never had anything like this before,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how growers respond to this.”

Primary approaches they’ve taken so far to combat the growing labor shortage include doing more to satisfy and retain existing workers, stretching labor resources as far as possible and supplementing or substituting farm workers with mechanization.

“In terms of robotics it’s all about cost,” Martin said. “Almost any crop can be picked by machine, but is it economical?”

In places like Napa Valley wine country or the coastal areas where strawberries are grown, Sandoval said it is increasingly difficult to house farm laborers.

“Workers simply can’t afford housing where some of the more valuable crops are,” he said. “It’s also a problem getting the permitting for affordable housing. Farm workers face hostility in these communities. People love their strawberries but not the workers who harvest them.”

Often that means lengthy commutes to and from work after long days in the fields and orchards.

High housing costs also make it difficult for growers to comply with H-2A, the temporary farm worker visa program. H-2A is mostly being used by large firms that can bring in sizable crews, often with the help of a labor broker, and then move those workers around to different regions of the country as needed, Martin said.

“Are we going back to how things were in the 1950s? It’s not clear yet whether we’ll go back to the time when workers lived on the farms they were working on,” he said.

The takeaway is that producers of high value crops will be forced to pay up, one way or another.

“As a farmer, how do you decide where to put your money? There’s no easy answer,” Martin concluded.

The ag communications professionals had the chance to tour an almond orchard near Williams, California, where owner Leo Lagrande also raises short-grain rice and beef cattle.

Tree crops, like fruits and nuts, are among the most dependent on seasonal labor.

“Every tree you see here was planted by hand,” Lagrande explained. During planting season, he estimated he hires upwards of 150 workers, but at other times he has fewer than 20.

“They are the reason we’re in business. They are like part of the family to us,” he said.

Running the century-old farm started by his grandfather is not getting any easier, he added.

“Every day you wake up it feels like somebody’s trying to put you out of business,” he said.