Trump immigration plan stirs concern on California farms

WATSONVILLE, Calif. (KTVU) -- There are signs that spring is in the air in the green canopied hills around Watsonville and farmers like Tom Broz are getting a little nervous.

"The height of the season really starts in a couple months and we really don't know if there's going to be enough workers," Broz said.

That's because recent talk of deportations and crackdowns on immigrants has sparked fear, and caused many to have second thoughts about staying in the U.S.

Broz manages Live Earth Farm, an organic farm in Watsonville, and he serves as president of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau. He said farmers across the county, state and nation are worried there may not be enough farm help come harvest time.

"Oh, we've heard from many farmers," he said.

Professor Dan Sumner of the U.C. Agricultural Issues Center at U.C. Davis said he's also heard worries from California farmers.

"The big concern to growers is the workers who've been with them for years, who are loyal workers but want to work but may not have the right kind of documentation," he said.

Sumner says today's debate over immigration is nothing new to California farmers.

"There's no question that hired farm labor in agriculture depends on people who are not fully documented, and that's been true for 50 years," he said.

Some 55 years ago, the Council of California Growers released a black-and-white documentary-style film to explain the importance of farmworkers.

The title was "Why Braceros?"

Braceros is a Spanish word meaning one who works with their arms and hands. Starting around World War II and for years after, the Braceros program allowed Mexican farmworkers to enter California to tend the land.

But even then there were some who questioned if the immigrant workers were taking jobs from American citizens. But others argued there were few, if any Americans, who would perform the back breaking work done by immigrants.

California is the No. 1 farm state in the country, with produces that include almonds, grapes and cheese, crops that are sold around the world. In fact, the state's agricultural crops amounted to $47 billion worth of goods in 2015.

Sumner says international trade deals have greatly benefitted California growers.

"The prosperity of California agriculture depends on global prosperity and so we don't want to do things as a nation that reduces global prosperity," he said.

But some of that prosperity has been lost because there aren't enough workers to harvest the crop. Broz says that has caused problems over the last couple of years because crops have been left behind to rot.

"The raspberries, strawberries and blackberries (are) all handpicked," Broz said. "I know of farmers who walked away from tens of thousands (and) hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of crops that were not able to be picked," he said.

Ironically, much of California's farm country, particularly the Central Valley, votes Republican.

It's some of those same voters who are now trying to convince Washington to be aware of how immigration laws could affect their farms. Sumner said farmers are now talking to their representatives to make sure the White House understands the importance of farm workers.

"Farmers are hopeful that there could be some kind of program that would allow those folks to stay in the country and work and of course better for everybody is if they had some legal status to be here," Sumner said.

Broz puts it a little more bluntly: "We hope that voting for Trump doesn't back fire."

Broz says he doesn't want to be alarmist but if farm workers continue to flee California then the farms themselves may disappear as well.

"We will have an increase in prices and we will see maybe an industry moving to other places," he said. "And that would (be) the worst case scenario that we lose this thriving industry that we have here in California."

By KTVU anchor Ken Wayne.