The Farmer You Keep Reading About, and the Reporters Who Love Him

How did Jon Vessey and his California farm come to be featured in five major news outlets over the past two months?

In a post Monday at Political Animal, Kevin Drum remarked that the Los Angeles Times had just run a story about the shortage of immigrant labor ready and willing to harvest the winter vegetable crop. He pointed to the story’s third paragraph: “‘Come January, we could see lettuce rotting in the fields because there will be no one to pick it,’ said Jon Vessey, who farms 8,000 acres near El Centro.”

The mention of Vessey’s 8,000 acres near El Centro brought to mind a similar article in the Washington Post that had also featured Vessey’s farm, Drum said, adding that USA Today had also quoted Vessey recently. “What’s up with that?” Drum asked. “Is Vessey the only farmer concerned about his crops rotting in the field due to a lack of labor?”

The short answer, Kevin, is no — but when it comes to print reporters, Jon Vessey and his California farm have been very popular lately. Vessey and his son Jack have been featured in no less than five major news outlets in the past two months, so if you’ve read a story on labor shortages on Western farms, there’s a good chance the Vesseys were in it.

USA Today got things rolling Oct. 10 with a page three piece reporting on “signs that Mexican and Central American workers, the backbone of California’s $32 billion-a-year agriculture industry, are deserting the farms.” The story said that the Western Growers Association, “which represents farmers who produce half the nation’s fresh produce, predicts a labor shortage of up to 70 percent for the $1 billion winter lettuce and broccoli harvest in western Arizona and California’s Imperial Valley.”

In the eighth paragraph, Jon Vessey made a brief appearance:

“It’s real,” says Jon Vessey, 61, who farms 8,000 acres of vegetables around El Centro, Calif. “I’ve never seen it this bad.” Last year, he says, many legal workers from Mexico got caught up in the Border Patrol’s stepped-up inspections and couldn’t get to the fields.

A week later, Gannett News Service upped the ante, making Vessey the centerpiece of its story. Read the lede: “Jon Vessey worries that much of the 8,000-acre vegetable crop he grows on his California farm will end up rotting on the ground unless he can get enough workers to help harvest it.”

Vessey was quoted extensively at beginning and end, with Gannett reporting that he and other farmers were pushing for a temporary guest-worker program to ease a gap caused, according to Vessey, by tighter border security and a shift by immigrants from agriculture to other high-paying jobs such as construction. “Our only hope is … this emergency guest-worker program,” said Vessey, whose farm is in the arid Imperial Valley, 10 miles north of the Mexican border.

When the Western agriculture weekly Capital Press examined the labor shortage issue in early November, the one farmer they quoted was — not surprisingly — Jon Vessey.

When the Washington Post weighed in with its Nov. 22 story “Shortage of Immigrant Workers Alarms Growers in West,” the paper led off with the travails of labor contractor Chuck Clunn, but the centerpiece of its article was none other than the Vesseys. “Today I have approximately 290 people working in the field,” said Jon, the president of Vessey & Co. “I should have 400, and for the harvest I need 1,100. … There’s a disaster coming.”

Here the younger Vessey, Jack (the vice president and fourth generation of the family business), made his first appearance with a telling anecdote. Wrote the Post:

Jack Vessey said he listed openings for 300 laborers at the state office of employment last week to prepare the lettuce fields for harvest. “We got one person,” he said. “He showed up and said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’”

Next came the Christian Science Monitor, which in its story last Friday painted a starker picture of the labor shortage. Daniel B. Wood focused on Jack Vessey and his lettuce harvest, an orange grower in California’s Central Valley and a coastal tomato grower, writing of their fears that the shortage could be “a turning point in the nation’s ability to produce its own food — and possibly the loss of major parts of its agriculture industry.”

Jack Vessey began his lettuce harvest last Tuesday 200 workers short, Wood wrote. “I lost $250,000 because of this problem last year,” Vessey said. “This year I am concerned I could go under completely.” Later the 300 workers anecdote popped up again: “[W]hen he went recently to Imperial County’s welfare and economic development department seeking 300 workers for the next day, only one showed up to his fields and left after half a day.”

Wood said he had wanted to do the lettuce story for a while, but waited until he could use the harvest as a news peg. “I called the Western Growers Association and said, can you help me find a farmer who’s having this problem?” said Wood, adding that Tim Chelling — the WGA’s vice president of communications — said he would give him 3 to 4 people, but only ended up giving him Vessey.

And that brings us back to the Times this week, where Jon Vessey was the featured farmer in Jerry Hirsch’s story, saying “he had increased his base pay and his piece-work rate to $10 to $12 an hour, above the starting wage for construction workers.” Here again one ever-compelling anecdote was used:

Vessey recently was looking for workers to weed and thin his fields. He posted openings for 300 temporary workers at the state Employment Development Office in Calexico.

“One person showed up and lasted half a day,” Vessey said. And this was in the heart of Imperial County, which has a jobless rate of 17.6 percent, or 11,400 people, according to the agency.

Hirsch said that he hadn’t seen the Monitor piece, and that “I just saw the Washington Post story three minutes before you called.” Hirsch said the genesis of his story — a follow-up to another Times writer’s Central Valley harvest story in August — was an editorial board meeting where the WGA brought up the point of Vessey’s trouble finding workers at the employment office. “A reporter hearing that would say, ‘Oh, that’s a great anecdote. Let’s talk to him,’” Hirsch said. “I got assigned the story, I did the story, I called a couple — 3 to 4 different farmers — and picked out Vessey because I liked that anecdote.”

For his part, the WGA’s Chelling said “We’re not necessarily pushing Vessey over anyone else,” adding, “If you start planting artificial message points, it will stick out like a sore thumb.” Instead, he theorized that “If a source has been used one time or two times or three times, it’s an easy source to go to for the story.”

In fact, “I’m thinking, poor Jon. Maybe somebody else can get in here too and give him some relief,” Chelling said. “He’s doing a fine job for someone who’s never really been in this situation.”

Or maybe the fact that the Vesseys have a well-established farming operation dating back nearly a century, one that produces over 25 different items and had $3.1 million in sales last fiscal year (according to Hoover’s), might have something to do with their popularity among reporters.

Wood and Hirsch’s comments to the contrary, Jon Vessey has his own Google theory.

“I don’t know whether they go through the computers and Google it or what,” he said, seeming perplexed by all the attention. “It just seems as if it’s a snowball. Some reporter will pick up the story and read it like you did, and call.”

Meantime, we have one suggestion in case the labor shortage becomes even more acute. Given Vessey and son’s regular success in getting their names prominently placed in national news outlets, they could always drop the cabbage business and try their hand at a new profession if their fortunes don’t improve:


Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.