California grower testifies about worker shortages


Issue Date: May 15, 2019
By Christine Souza

A shortage of employees to do the work of agriculture, especially the intensive hand labor required by California's specialty-crop sector, is among the various stressors affecting the nation's farm economy.

Labor, trade policy, commodity pricing, crop insurance and disaster relief were described as farm-economy impacts in testimony by U.S. farmers who testified last week before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management.

Representing California, Dan Sutton, general manager of the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, a San Luis Obispo County-based cooperative that grows crops such as napa cabbage, bok choy and leafy greens, noted that sourcing enough employees is critical for farmers trying to get perishable vegetable crops to market.

"The labor shortage continues to increase and yet we're still unable to get employees to work on our farms," said Sutton, past-president of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau and chairman of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Advisory Board. "We need to harvest and get our crops to market usually within three days of harvest."

Subcommittee member Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, asked Sutton to explain the challenges caused by the lack of a sustainable workforce.

"Labor is one of the most concerning issues that we are facing. In recent years, the domestic labor pool has gone away," Sutton said. "Our operation is one of several hundred working in the specialty crop industry and our labor needs are pretty intensive. It takes hand-labor to get that crop out of our farm to your dinner table."

The only solution available to farmers, Sutton said, is a costly one—the federal H-2A guestworker program, which he said is what he uses to source 85% of the harvesting crews that he needs.

"The H-2A program gives us the labor we need, but it is extremely expensive such as we have to provide housing and transportation. Then there's the California laws such as the increase in minimum wage and ag overtime decreasing," Sutton said. "When you factor all of these costs that go into one box of production, at times it doesn't pencil out, so we have to make the decision: Do we harvest this box or not?"

For the long term, Sutton said specialty crop growers are looking at mechanization as a solution to the labor shortage, but he noted that cost of this technology could be a barrier.

Georgia farmer Bart Davis of Davis Family Farms, who grows cotton, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, hogs and beef cattle, said, "This economic situation is the result of multiple factors that have combined to create almost a perfect storm for farmers in most parts of the country."

Davis cited a variety of impacts such as flat-to-downward-trending commodity prices, trade-policy uncertainties, increased global competition and areas hit by natural disasters.

Texas farmer Matt Huie of Huie Farms, who grows cotton, corn, sorghum and raises livestock, said, "the farm economy in the coastal end of Texas is lousy; it is bad."

Huie spoke about a variety of challenges, noting that 2018 tariff issues from trade disputes drove the price of crop insurance down, "therefore it erodes the safety net as we work toward what our ability is to borrow and other things."

For 2019, he added, farmers have enormous exposure based on the value dropping in crop insurance.

"Despite crop insurance being a great tool, when you have a systemic decline in price, we have a decline in what we're able to insure," Huie said. "Part of the reason I am here is I understand how important farm policy is and I appreciate Washington stepping in in those times and helping us because that's how we survive."

Minnesota farmer Mike Peterson of Twin Oaks Farms, who grows corn, soybeans and hogs, said the last five years have been incredibly challenging, adding, "In 2018, median net farm income in Minnesota was at its lowest level in the last 23 years."

"Unless we get our markets back and prices rebound, many more farmers will be out of business," he said.

As part of his testimony to the subcommittee, Peterson spoke of the next generation of farmers, noting, "I want my son to have a reason to apply his energy and skills into the family farming tradition. If we want the next generation to get into farming, we have to at least give them a fighting chance."

Josh Rolph, manager of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said as the subcommittee heard testimony from U.S. farmers about the state of nation's farm economy, "it was great to have a California witness to represent western issues which are oftentimes different from farmers elsewhere."

"We applaud Rep. Carbajal for selecting Farm Bureau member Dan Sutton to discuss the state of the farm economy," Rolph said. "Where other witnesses from outside of California were focused more on pricing, disaster and the Farm Bill, Dan's testimony hit at the heart of the overarching obstacles many California farmers face: labor, trade, water, and food safety."

Subcommittee Ranking Member Glenn "G.T." Thompson, R-PA, said the testimony "makes it clear that farmers and ranchers from all across the country have been struggling for nearly six straight years."

"We made some significant improvements to the safety net in the 2018 Farm Bill, but as we heard—Congress has to do more to show support for rural America and our farmers and ranchers," said Committee Ranking Member Mike Conaway, R-Texas. "Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi needs to prioritize a vote on the USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) in the House, and we need to immediately pass a disaster assistance bill to aid farm families and communities across this country."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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