Growers try technology to bridge employee gaps


Issue Date: August 1, 2018
By Bob Johnson
John Louie, farm support supervisor for Tanimura & Antle, describes an automated planting system using seed tape. He says the Salinas Valley farming operation also uses robotic weeding machines and thinning machines, in part because a shortage of qualified employees has encouraged farmers to seek mechanized alternatives for completing farm tasks.
Photo/Bob Johnson
Brian Antle heads the plant-tape program for Tanimura & Antle, and says the system allows farmers to plant vegetable fields using many fewer people than earlier technologies.
Photo/Bob Johnson

Central Coast vegetable growers continue to search for answers that will let them stay in business in the face of employee shortages that they expect to keep getting more difficult.

Cool-season vegetable production is particularly vulnerable, farmers say, because many of the operations needed to grow and harvest these high-value crops are still performed by hand.

"Labor's been the one deal that's right in front of us," said Rod Braga, president and CEO of Soledad-based Braga Fresh Family Farms. "Five years ago, it was: 'How are we going to be able to harvest it?' Now, it's: 'How are we going to plant it?'"

Technology is gaining favor that lets fewer employees perform tasks such as planting, weeding, thinning and harvesting.

"We use robotic weeding machines and robotic thinning machines," said John Louie, farm support supervisor at Tanimura & Antle in the Salinas Valley. "We are really concentrating on technology because of labor shortages."

In recent years, Tanimura & Antle has been working with a more efficient, labor-saving method of transplanting that is becoming more widely adopted in the valley.

"Seed tape is an automated planting system," Louie said. "By using transplants, we start with healthy plants. We start with plants that are 20 to 30 days old."

Tanimura & Antle uses seed tape for conventional cauliflower, broccoli and celery, but finds enough uniformity to use seeds for lettuce.

"We pay $4,000 to $5,000 an acre to lease land, and transplants let us use the ground for something else for 20 or 30 days," Louie said.

The savings on employment costs may be even more important, however, than the advantage of being able to use expensive land, farmers said.

"This machine with three people can do the same amount of work as two transplant machines and 30 people," said Brian Antle, who heads the plant-tape program for Tanimura & Antle. "With 10 percent of the labor, we're doing the same amount of work."

The seed-tape system is not approved for organic production, where transplants are widely used, because the glue holding the tape together is not organic.

"We cannot get an organic exception for the glue, because plant tape is not necessary; you can use transplants," Antle said.

But the savings in employees have drawn the attention of other Central Coast conventional growers. The machines, which cost between $100,000 and $200,000, are typically purchased in the Salinas Valley for $160,000.

"We stumbled on plant tape in 2012, and we ended up purchasing the company in 2014," Antle said. "We are selling this to our competitors and to growers around the world."

Other grower-shippers of additional labor-intensive specialty crops throughout the West are also looking to technology as part of the answer to employee shortages.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Washington apple and cherry shipper Stemilt, said his company is moving to robotics.

"We're going to a lot of robotics, but labor will be an ongoing question," Pepperl said. "There aren't even enough people to do the forklift jobs."

While farmers look to technology to provide part of the answer to employee shortages, they are also looking toward strategies to retain their workers.

"We provide health insurance for harvesters and a 401K, the same as our other employees," said Chris Glynn, director of organics for Tanimura & Antle. "We have over 300 workers who have been with us 20 years or longer."

Last year, the company added to this benefits package a stock ownership program that makes celery and romaine lettuce harvesters part-owners of one of the largest vegetable grower-shipper companies in the country.

"Any worker who works 1,000 hours is eligible to be an employee-owner," said Jessie Lopez, director of business development at Tanimura & Antle. "We get stock regularly."

The year before launching its stock-ownership program, Tanimura & Antle opened a large affordable-housing complex for employees at the company's headquarters site in Spreckels.

"Spreckels Crossing opened in 2016 with 100 residents," said Sal Castanera, housing manager at the complex. "Now, there are almost 500 people. We have 100 two-bedroom apartments."

When first conceived, Spreckels Crossing was intended to fulfill the housing requirement to bring in employees from out of the country.

"This housing was built for H-2A visa workers, but we had the need, so this is entirely our domestic workforce," Castanera said. "It is adults only. There are 18 couples and around 50 or 60 women living here. There are no H-2As."

The combination of a benefits package, stock in the company and affordable housing appears to be paying off in employee retention, he said.

"Our harvest crews are full," Castanera said, "and we are able to cut everything."

The advantage of a more stable workforce has gotten the attention of other Central Coast growers, who are considering affordable housing as part of a benefits package.

"We can provide safe housing," said Kyla Oberman, director of marketing at Tanimura & Antle. "This is something others in the Salinas Valley are looking into."

(Bob Johnson is a reporter in Davis. He may be contacted at bjohn11135@aol.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.