Firebaugh, Calif., melon grower Joe L. Del Bosque takes special interest when the subject is farm workers, since he employees about 900 seasonal workers each year on his farm and packing shed, as well as for his farm labor contracting business.

It’s also “personal” since he is also the son of a migrant farm worker; he earned his way through college as a farm worker, and his wife Maria Gloria Del Bosque is a former migrant worker who immigrated to this country with her family. She now manages all the farm labor for Empresas Del Bosque, Inc.

Del Bosque’s father, Jose, migrated to California’s Imperial Valley from Mexico in the 1930s. For years he worked desert melon fields there early in the season and later, on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

He cringes when farm workers are portrayed as abused and neglected and considered unskilled labor. It’s describing him, a college graduate who accomplished goals in his life by working on farms.

“The area where we farm is called the West Side District,” he says. It is prime melon growing country. “There are three things that make farming work in California: soil, water and people. We have to have good people to farm. We must take care of that resource.”

Where Del Bosque farms is mile after mile of pristine fields, orchards and vineyards. There may be few people, but nothing is secret in the field or in towns. If something is amiss with workers, word travels fast. “

“Integrity is important out here. People get paid for the work they do. That’s all they ask for,” he says.

“The farm labor workforce is a skilled workforce. It is a slap in the face when someone says otherwise,” says Del Bosque. “People who write about farm workers never come out here and see what is happening. That’s disrespectful.

“The workers are are happy to have jobs. They just want to earn a living and go home at the end of the day to be with their families like everyone else.

“I grew up out here. I drove a tractor in the melon fields for my dad when I was nine years old,” said the 63-year-old Del Bosque, who farms about 2,200 acres of melons, almonds, processing tomatoes, cherries, and an organic line of cantaloupe and honeydew melons on the West Side of the SJV.

Joe’s father died in 1999 at age 87. Joe’s mother’s family worked the fields. “My mother was fortunate that she worked very little in the fields. She had many brothers, and they didn’t let her work when she was young because she was the youngest sibling.

“My father was a proud man and worked enough so my mom could be a stay-at-home mom,” Joe says.

“Only after my sisters and I were in school and old enough, my mother took us out to experience work in the fields. She had us try picking cotton, apricots, and prunes. Her intention wasn’t to give us a bad experience from farm work, but to learn that there were rewards (making money) by working for it.”

American dream

It’s all about the American dream. People come here to work hard to do better for themselves and their families. “They want their children to be the doctors and lawyers,” he says.

As many as 750,000 seasonal farm workers work from planting to harvest each year in California just like the Del Bosque family did.

(For more, see: Immigration reform heavily favored in survey)

Del Bosque began his own farm in 1985 after several years of custom farming. “My father moved the family here in 1953 and spent many years as a farm manager,” says Joe. Jose Del Bosque was considered a premier melon grower, and Joe inherited that reputation from learning from his father.

“My dad worked for an old Armenian farmer who had grown melons in the valley since 1915. I grew up learning hard work and melon growing from my dad,” Joe said.

“Joe is one outstanding melon grower,” says University of California IPM specialist Pete Goodell, who has worked with Del Bosque on research projects. Del Bosque is involved in many areas to improve his farming, including the almond sustainable farming program. He has hosted field days in his orchards to allow UC entomologists to demonstrate sustainable practices.

Joe’s skills were the reason he got a start in farming on his own. His reputation at custom farming was evident in the field, and it earned him financing from Anderson-Clayton to get started. Joe is embarrassed to say what his financial statement looked like when he applied for credit at Anderson-Clayton. It would not buy a tanker load of diesel today.

“It was not easy getting started, but Anderson-Clayton took a chance on me because they had seen what I could do in the fields,” he said. “Your reputation means everything out here.”

Joe graduated from Dos Palos High School and went to California State University in 1967. He paid for his school from working in the fields and with a little help from a wrestling scholarship. However, he had to drop out for four years to work. He returned to school later and earned his degree in 1975.

Joe has always been active outside of his farm. He is a member in a number of organizations: Western Growers, California Certified Organic Farmers, California Farm Water Coalition, Family Farm Alliance, AgSafe, and the California Latino Water Coalition.

In 2009, the Latino water coalition organized one of the most significant public demonstrations in valley history when 10,000 people, farmers, farm workers, political leaders and others marched 30 miles over three days from Mendota to San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos protesting water delivery reduction to farmers.

“It was really tough with so little water. A lot of people were out of work because the farmers did not have water. I had to cut back the acreage I farmed, but I never laid off any workers. They did not get as many hours as they had, but I kept them working,” he said.

The march is a great source of pride for Del Bosque. “The march started right here on my farm. Farm workers are pretty reserved. When I asked our workers if they wanted to march, they said ‘yes’ to demonstrate to the public how important water was to them for making a living,” he said. He is still amazed at the turnout and support from across the valley.

“We were needing things for the march as it became organized. Someone said we needed water and all of a sudden seven pallets of bottled water showed up that someone bought from Costco,” he says. “It was all about the farm workers because they wanted to work, but there was no work because of the cutbacks in water deliveries.”

Compassion and respect

Joe and Marie are compassionate about those who work the fields and packing sheds. Watching Marie interact, the mutual respect between her as a farm owner and them as workers is obvious. Joe says it is her ability to communicate with crews that makes her so valuable. She’s family; not just boss. It is very evident that her pleasant smile and ability to communicate well in Spanish puts workers at ease.

As this reporter asked that she and Joe pose with a young asparagus harvester for a photograph, it was obvious she made him feel at ease. He was wearing his baseball cap with the bill to the side, which is the style today. As she told him that the photographer wanted to take his photo, he smiled and shifted his cap for the bill to be in front of his face without her asking. There was respect for Marie with that simple gesture.

“He is from Merced. He drove all the way down here to work today,” she said. That is at least a 60-mile round trip.

“There is a lot of carpooling. Word of mouth is what brings workers to where the jobs are,” says Joe. “They just show up in the fields to work.”

California is regulatory purgatory for many businesses, agriculture particularly. There is a myriad of laws and agencies overseeing just about everything Joe does on his farm. Labor is no different.

It is such a critical element, there is a statewide, non-profit organization called AgSafe that is designed to maintain a healthy, viable agricultural labor force.

AgSafe is an organization comprised of individuals, associations and businesses with the shared mission of preventing injuries, illness and fatalities among those working in agriculture from planting to processing. Its goal is to give employers the tools needed to keep employees safe and healthy, while continuing to run a profitable, successful business.

Del Bosque is chairman of AgSafe. AgSafe is one of the largest agricultural organizations in the state. Its board of directors include representatives from the biggest farming organizations in the state like Grimmway Farms, Driscoll Strawberries, Harris Farms, Fetzer Vineyards, Del Monte and Western Growers.

AgSafe organizes and promotes educational activities, conferences, regional meetings, applied research, and the collection, interpretation and dissemination of agricultural health, safety and human resource information to enhance the effectiveness of the agricultural safety professional.

“We give employers the tools needed to keep employees safe and healthy while continuing to run a profitable, successful business,” says Amy Wolfe, AgSafe president and CEO. AgSafe is based in Modesto, Calif.

Valued workforce

“Everyone in agriculture values people who work in our industry,” said Del Bosque. “We want to do all we can to give them a good life with a safe and comfortable place to work. We’d be foolish to abuse this valuable resource.”

AgSafe is the only state organization of its kind in the nation, largely because of the many crops in California requiring extensive hand labor. “I think every state could benefit from having an AgSafe organization because the issues we face are spreading across the nation,” says Wolfe.

Joe said some of his workers are homemakers who work in the summer to help support their families through the fall and winter. Others are migrant workers from Mexico who earn money here to send home or take back with them. Some work mostly for him. Others move from crop to corp.

“It can be very competitive during the various harvest seasons,” he says.

Joe and Marie understand the goals of the people who work for them because they are shared dreams.

“We are very proud of the fact 70 percent or more of the people who work for us want to come back each year,” he said. “We have second generations of families who work for us. We have supervisors who started working for us in the fields in the 1990s.”

Properly maintaining a valued work force is one reason 1,100 gather for the annual AgSafe conference. It is one of the largest agricultural gathers in the state. AgSafe conducts many seminars for companies and labor contractors during the year.

Wolfe said the annual conference, held this year in Monterey, addresses “critical” labor issues in a multitude of forums covering several days.

The conference is unique, she says, because it brings together employers with all the various state and government agencies which regulate farm labor.

The conference is “neutral ground” where agencies are not out to write tickets, but to share a common goal of creating a safe, healthy environment for farm workers.

It is also an opportunity to network. “People learn how to work smarter rather than harder,” he said.

“What I see at these conferences and workshops is that some AgSafe sponsors are not aware of all state and federal regulations that they have to be in compliance with. It is an opportunity to get your head around all the legalese,” he said.

Del Bosque cites the AgSafe education program for labor contractors. “As a labor contractor who harvests crops for other people, this is a great program. We have many small and beginning licensed contractors in the business. To be honest, many do not have a strong educational background. It really helps everyone, contractor and worker, to keep current on laws and regulations,” he says.

There are about 1,200 licensed ag labor contractors in the state. “Some have crews numbering in the thousands and some have maybe 20 or 30 on a crew,” said Del Bosque.

Like his peers, Del Bosque feels overregulated. “I will admit things are 1,000 percent different than when my dad hired braceros. A lot of the regulations today are beneficial, but regulators can make things more stringent than necessary. Sometimes they do not understand what goes in the field and the packing shed. Nevertheless, we try to live within the rules.”

Complying with labor laws is only part of the labor issue for farmers like Del Bosque. Availability is an ongoing concern. This year he does not expect a problem, although he is seeing fewer immigrants crossing the Mexican border. “However, I see labor shortages in the future,” he says.

“Last year we even had about 20 people who had not worked on farms working for us because they could not find jobs elsewhere,” he says.

“E-Verify really concerns me. The lack of an updated immigration policy and a guest worker program that works also concerns me. However, for whatever the reason, the country does not seem in the mood to work things out so we can have a stable labor force.”