Those of us who live in California and oppose illegal immigration are often met with the bromide that illegal aliens plant and harvest our food, and that without them, the nation would starve. We are told illegal aliens are the backbone of California agriculture. It has been true that Mexican born labor has been at the core of California’s agricultural scene ever since Tom Joad went off to World War 2.
Mexican labor came to be the dominant labor force in the California fields during WW2. This labor received short term visas and had contractual rights that were enforceable in the Courts of law. After the end of the Bracero program in 1956, California still relied on Mexican born labor, only now it crossed the border illegally, and that labor had no contractual rights. No longer were farm workers given decent housing as part of their pay. Working conditions and pay degenerated. The agriculture industry was pleased with the new illegal labor, as wages and costs were driven into the ground.
This inexpensive labor has had a unexpected cost to California’s agricultural industry. 120 years ago, California agriculture was the most modern in the world. Europeans wrote books on the marvels of our agricultural industry. With the advent of Illegal alien labor who had no recourse to the courts and who could be kept in nearly permanent effective slavery, California’s farming structure became mostly frozen in time.
If a Californian visited say, a strawberry or bell pepper farm in the Netherlands or Japan, they would be amazed. Strawberries, rather than be grown at ground level that require stoop labor for harvest, Dutch and Japanese strawberries are grown indoors in greenhouses on racks that can be raised or lowered to waist level to harvest. Dutch bell peppers are also grown in hot houses. They are uniformly perfect, unscarred and picked at the moment of perfection. When seen in the store next to a California bell pepper the Dutch Bell peppers look more attractive and they are full of flavor.
This is not a unusual situation. Throughout agriculture in the first world, California has been left behind with our reliance on cheap illegal labor. Our produce yield per acre is below the average of most of the industrialized world. Other nations are already growing their produce in vertical climate and pest controlled greenhouses. They use fewer pesticides. They are run by fewer, more highly trained human laborers. Harvest has been designed to be less labor intensive and less painful.
We are in California, due to our cheap effectively slave illegal alien labor, stuck just beyond the 19th Century. Most of the rest of the first world has been in the 21st Century of Agriculture for more than thirty years. If there is any hope for innovation, we need to do things differently.