SELMA, California — Vicente Contreras is 70 years old and "no más," he insists with a smile and he says he is still fit and hearty enough to perform the hard labor of California's farm fields.
Contreras concedes his knees hurt when he climbs ladders to pick peaches, nectarines and plums for $8 to $9 an hour, six days a week, during the peak summer harvest. And during the less rigorous pruning of grapevines in winter, he can't move as fast as the young workers at least when they happen to be around.
Amid the verdant fields and orchards of America's most bountiful agricultural region, California farmworkers are graying. A labor shortage deepens as fewer younger workers arrive from Mexico and more head home to stay.
Increasingly, California's $44.3 billion agricultural industry must rely on the well-calloused hands of older workers who came many years ago to fill jobs pruning, planting, picking and packing.
These days at Chandler Farms, a fourth-generation family ranch 20 miles southeast of Fresno, veteran workers like Contreras are in the majority.
On a recent weekday, Antonio Magdaleno, 59, cut grapevines in a neighboring field. Magdaleno emigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, in 1973 and has spent 36 of his last 40 years on Central Valley farms.
His features bronzed and weathered, Magdaleno said he looks forward to the mid-winter pruning, "a beautiful time and something special," marking the start of the growing season.
"It's always been us," Magdaleno said in Spanish. "Time has passed, and we're older. The young people want to work in factories and other places."
The aging of California's agricultural workforce reflects a convergence of trends.
In many cases, the children of farmworkers who arrived decades ago have little interest in field work, leaving much of the vital labor to their elders.
Tighter U.S. immigration enforcement, as well as brutal cartel-driven violence along the Mexican border, have deterred many potential workers from attempting to cross.
And, amid a rebounding economy in Mexico, Mexican farms are facing their own labor shortage and have plenty of work to offer at home.
The upshot, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation, is that more than 70 percent of state agricultural producers anticipate a worker shortage starting this spring and worsening though the growing season. Some officials estimate the labor force could fall by more than 80,000 farmworkers down from the 450,000 workers whom farmers have come to rely on for the peak harvest of late summer.
"Basically, we're running out of low-skilled workers. People simply are not doing farm work to the extent they were doing before," said J. Edward Taylor, a University of California, Davis, economist who has studied the migration of farmworkers from Mexico.
'Active and ready' at 70
Contreras, the 70-year-old farmhand, says he is happy to be among those still working the orchards and vineyards at Chandler Farms, which produces tree fruit, raisin grapes and almonds.
"What I like is being out with people in the fresh air," said Contreras in Spanish, his eyes glinting in the crisp morning sun. "I'm alive, active and ready for this work."
Grinning, he contorted to parody a feeble man shriveling into a ball. "If I don't work, I'll do this," he said.
But from California's Central Valley to Washington, D.C., the graying workforce adds urgency to the debate over immigration reform.
Farm lobbyists and elected officials are discussing remedies that include granting legal status to more than 1 million undocumented farmworkers in the United States and establishing an expanded guest worker visa program for agriculture to ensure a steady supply of laborers.
"We have to try to find a system that is not going to cause a major disruption to our industry," said Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. The industry group favors letting undocumented farmworkers stay in the country while applying for legal status, as well as drawing in seasonal guest workers to replenish the labor force.
California agricultural interests estimate that as many as 70 percent to 90 percent of farmworkers in the state may be here illegally, often presenting counterfeit documents to secure work.
Those who face the least danger of deportation and who are least likely to flee in immigration raids tend to be veteran workers, whose U.S. residency is more established.
Bill Chandler, 73, runs the family ranch in Selma with his son, John, who is 35. Chandler says his workforce largely consists of older laborers who got permanent residency or U.S. citizenship under a 1986 immigration reform law signed by President Ronald Reagan.
"There are always people in the ag labor force who don't have (proper) papers," Chandler said. "So we're all scrambling for what labor is here. And they're older folks."
He added: "They're special. They're really special."
'No one wants to do this'
On a recent day, as more than a dozen men set to work pruning Chandler's raisin vines, all but one were over 40.
Adrien Rosales, 22, was that one younger worker. He said he is proud of his father, Salvador, 46, who was pruning alongside his son.
"It's tough work. You get tired, worn down, and no one wants to do this," Adrien said. He said he plans to study heating and air conditioning and to grab at the first opportunity to get out of farm labor.
"It's very hard to find people who work in the fields whose parents migrated from Mexico to work in the fields," said Taylor of UC Davis. "The second generation doesn't do farm work. That's why we've relied on a steady influx of newcomers. And the newcomers are in dwindling supply."
Taylor said economic factors may continue to drive down the number of farmworkers even with immigration reform and prompt growers to convert to less labor-intensive crops.
That is already happening at the 480-acre Chandler Farms. Because of difficulty finding workers for harvesting fruit, the family decided to cut back by 40 acres on peaches and plums and use more land to grow almonds, which can be harvested by machine.
"I don't know if it is going to get better for a while," Chandler said. "If you want peaches or plums, or strawberries or lettuce or tomatoes, we need a program in which we can have labor. I don't have the answers."
For years, the Chandler family hired seasonal workers, often younger men who were put up in a bunkhouse on the ranch.
These days, the farm mostly finds workers through word of mouth. Many are older laborers who worked at the ranch years before and now have their own homes and, in many cases, have sent their children off to college.
"That's the success story," said John Chandler. "You see the next generation moving on."
Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League, representing 1,100 farms, packing and processing firms and dairy and poultry outlets, worries about the future.
Cunha says his group's workforce fell by 20 to 30 percent during last year's harvest season compared with the year before. By September, some farm crews were as much as 60 percent short of needed workers, Cunha said. He blamed stepped-up farm audits by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the increased perils facing migrants along the border with Mexico.
"Workers were leaving agriculture because they were fearful of the audits and getting busted by ICE," Cunha said. "And then, when they went home, they realized it wasn't worth it to return because of the drug traffickers and human traffickers" preying on people crossing the border.
"They're not coming back," Cunha said. "The fear is too great."
Barbara Cecchini, who grows fruits and vegetables in Contra Costa County, said many of the seasonal workers who typically cut her asparagus crop didn't return last year. And numerous younger workers took off for other farms when harvest time arrived for blueberries and cherries crops that generally pay higher hourly rates because of better profit margins at supermarkets.
"When our labor force shrinks, we have to shrink our fields," said Cecchini. As much as 20 percent of her asparagus went uncut last year, she said, because she couldn't find enough workers young or old to harvest the crop.
The work takes its toll
John Chandler worries about the physical toll on older workers. He said he doesn't want the oldest workers doing heavy lifting and seeks to ensure they have ample drinking water in the fields.
"A lot of ag work can be very physical," he said. "It just gets tougher to get down and pick up those boxes and lug those peaches. And we recognize that."
Macabeo Murillo, 58, worked on the Chandler farm 20 years ago, before moving on to work in a boat factory and as a lineman for Pacific Gas and Electric. Along the way, he raised two daughters who went into nursing and a son who became a city public works officer.
But Murillo recently returned to field work. His family house is near Chandler Farms. His wife has been in poor health, and Murillo wanted employment close to home. For him, returning to the work he performed as a young migrant didn't seem like a stretch.
"I found something I enjoyed," he said. "Our generation thinks differently about this work. We're responsible about putting food on our household table, about keeping the lights on and paying our bills."
Arcadio Castro, 59, is a foreman at the Chandler ranch. Castro was undocumented when he came to the United States in 1972 but was granted U.S. citizenship in 1995.
He said he often returns to visit his hometown in Zacatecas, Mexico, and still encounters young men there working on farms for as little as 100 pesos, or $8 a day, who dream of finding jobs in California.
But he said few can afford the $5,000 a coyote may charge to smuggle them across the border. And those willing to take the risk often prefer construction jobs in urban areas.
So Castro has come to rely upon and appreciate the veteran laborers willing to perform work many of their kids won't consider.
"You're not going to believe me, but the older workers are better," Castro said. "They go slower, but they work all day long. The younger ones start complaining. They say, 'Oh, it's so hot.' Then they climb up a ladder and start texting."
FARMERS, SENATORS, OBAMA OFFER PLANS
Amid intensifying debate over U.S. immigration policy, agricultural interests, a bipartisan congressional panel and President Barack Obama are calling for changes in farm labor policies that range from detailed proposals to more generalized statements.
Agricultural Workforce Coalition, includes the Agricultural Council of California, the California Grape and Tree Fruit League and the Western Growers Association
Create two guest worker programs: one for seasonal laborers who could work up to 11 months before returning to home countries for 30 days; another for laborers working one-year renewable contracts with provisions to return home for 30 days over a three-year period.
Grant legal work status for experienced undocumented farmworkers living in the United States in exchange for their agreeing to a multiyear obligation to work in agriculture.
U.S. Senate Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Reform
Create a workable program to meet the needs of America's agricultural industry, including dairy, to find workers when American workers are not available to fill open positions.
The White House
Create a pathway to citizenship by requiring undocumented immigrants to register, pass national security checks and pay fees and penalties before becoming eligible for provisional legal status. Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.