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California’s Unemployed Snub Farm Jobs

• December 17, 2012 • 3:50 PM

As everyone who has read “The Grapes of Wrath” knows, the last time we had a major national economic crisis, back in the 1930s, thousands of out-of-work Americans poured into California hoping for jobs picking crops. But in today’s recession, California farmers can’t find enough workers bring in the harvest – even though the state’s unemployment rate tops 10 per cent, the third-highest in the nation. A recent survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation found that nearly two out of three growers are short of workers, despite raising the wages they offer. One-fifth of them said they’ve cut back on planting or left crops unharvested as a result.

You can’t wholly blame the unemployed for turning up their noses at picking tomatoes: farm work is famously hard and low-paid. The federal Agriculture Department’s latest survey says field workers are earning a little over $10 an hour these days; activists say that when you factor in the seasonal nature of the work, over the course of a year the average farmworker family basically earns about the poverty level. That’s why, as the big growers freely admit, they rely heavily on illegal immigrants. But with a worker shortage this dire, those wages should rise, or so Economics 101 would have us believe. So where is the invisible hand of the market when you need it?

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.

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