(Jan. 22) It’s tempting to think that had Congress passed a labor bill in 2006, California citrus and other produce growers would have been able to harvest more of the crop before the freeze and wouldn’t be in such a dire situation.

But that’s not quite true.

Joel Nelsen, president of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said even if Congress had passed a comprehensive guest worker bill last year to ease growers’ labor problems, it wouldn’t have been implemented in time to save crops from the January freeze.

He said that because of smaller area crops of competing produce, citrus growers actually had sufficient labor this season and that many did work extra hours harvesting before the freeze.

But the real labor crunch is coming.

Workers who normally have as little as a month off during the citrus cycle will now have roughly March through November without any citrus work, Nelsen said, which means many workers will find something else to do and never return.

He said now is the time for the California grower-shipper community, especially those hurt by the freeze, to pressure lawmakers for labor solutions.

An AgJobs bill was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate in mid-January. That’s a start, but the industry needs action — sooner rather than later.

It would be a shame for American consumers to miss out on California citrus because of worker issues a year after they miss out on the fruit because of a freeze.