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SPECIAL REPORT: Scaling back on ag due to farmworker shortage

CBS 13's April Hettinger investigates why there is a lack of hands on the field

YUMA, Ariz. (KYMA, KECY) - Day laborers are essential in supplying our nation's food source, but a lack of workers has made it difficult for the industry to keep up with the maintenance.

Agriculture is one of Yuma's biggest economic driving forces, but some farmers like John Boelts, executive director of Desert Premium Farms, have scaled back on production intentionally because there aren't enough workers to do some of the most critical jobs in the field.

"Agriculture, particularly in this area but agriculture all across the United States, has always relied on first and second generation immigrants to do a lot of the good work in agriculture that needs to be done," Boelts said. "A lot of it's hand labor."

William Ware with D.V.B. Harvesting is a 5th generation farmer and has handed the passion down to his son.

"It's just really nice when you have a family that's been in this business for three or four or five generations, you can tell. I mean, they're taught more at home basically," Ware explained.

Not every company has the luxury of continuous farmers in the family tree. Many like Kase Limmeroth, owner of Naked Dates, are dealing with a generational gap.

"They're either going to high school or college. We employ those guys, but then we kind of go from there to the 40 to 60 age group, and that is, in fact, a lot of our regular, full-time, year-round guys," Limmeroth stated.

The shortage has limited the amount of product farmers produce locally causing an economic loss.

"What we'll continue to see is a country like Mexico continue to fill that void and supply more and more product," Boelts said. "You know, 30 years ago, they were supplying 5-10% of the production of fresh vegetables coming into the United States. Now, it's exceeding 30%."

When much of that is an easy way to boost the U.S. economy if it's grown in Yuma County.

"What we ultimately end up doing is seeing more product imported every day that could be grown here in the United States, grown, harvested, cooled, and shipped from right here in the U.S. to U.S. customers and Canadian customers," Boelts stated.

Many farmers say the ag community is aging and could lead to a much bigger domino effect.

"We've noticed it last season, especially during the produce season. We get a lot of, you know, custom field workers that come in, harvest crews mainly. We've just had a few times where we've set up orders, set up to have a field thinned or weeded, and you get bumped a day or two," Ware said. "This season actually we had fields that went almost a week to 10 days later, and so that caused quite a few problems."

This has been a problem for decades, but the effects of the coronavirus only made it worse.

"The pandemic compounded it. I believe we had a problem already starting. I don't know if it's generational gaps or what, but we definitely see where it's a little harder to recruit and have young people coming into this field," Ware explained.

And, there aren't any new workers coming in.

"There's a lack of interest, I think, among young people. It's hard work, and the desert is not necessarily the most hospitable," Limmeroth said.

Farmworkers in Yuma County get paid $30,000 a year or $13 an hour on average.

On top of that, the ag industry is more labor intensive, and other industries pay more for less manual labor.

"We've been chronically short of workers for a long, long time, and the place we're most short of workers is with our harvest crews and our weeding and thinning," Boelts stated.

About two-thirds of all farmworkers in Yuma County are from Mexico.

John Boelts says it's going to take stronger legislative action from the federal government to allow workers to cross the border legally.

A fair agreement can bring more skilled workers like irrigators or harvesters.

"From pruning, to pollinating, to de-thorning, to harvesting, to sorting, it's all hand work," Limmeroth said.

This hand work can ruin the crop if it's not done in a timely manner.

"If you start missing those windows by a week or 10 days, its plant size, its harvest dates, it really goes down the line. If the plants are generally too close together, you'll have a quality issue, insect, everything, the plants rubbing together," Ware explained. "There's just a hundred problems there."

Technology has come a long way, but won't live up to the expectations of hand harvesting a head of lettuce with a knife.

"There's never going to be a replacement for somebody that can literally visually look at something and make a decision, but yeah, the machines are definitely coming," Ware said.

But, the need for workers won't ever just go away.

"You can automate things or mechanize things and improve lots of operations, but you don't completely eliminate needing skilled workers to do those jobs," Boelts stated.

It's going to be a while before farmworkers are replaced with technology, but for now, the ag industry is hoping to recruit new farmers and blend the generational gap.

Tonight at 10, an exclusive piece by 13 On Your Side's April Hettinger dives into this farmworker shortage.

Special Reports / Top Stories / Yuma County
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April Hettinger

April was born and raised in San Diego where she loved the beach town and her two dogs, Lexi and Malibu. She decided to trade the beach for the snow and advanced her education at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

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