CFBF survey: Farmers report challenges hiring help for harvest


Issue Date: December 5, 2012
By Christine Souza
Nearly one-third of farmers responding to a California Farm Bureau survey said they experienced employee shortages of between 10 percent and 30 percent this year.
Graph by Matt Salvo

Nearly two-thirds of farmers who responded to a survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation said they experienced challenges finding enough employees to tend and harvest crops in 2012. Farm Bureau released the results of the online survey this week. The survey included responses from nearly 800 Farm Bureau members about their experience during the harvest season.

"Throughout the year and throughout the state, we heard personal accounts from farmers who struggled to find enough people to work on their farms. We wanted to find out more about the extent of the problem," California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger said. "Employee shortages were widespread among farmers who responded to the survey, and they reacted by taking a number of steps to cope with the problem."

CFBF said the voluntary survey brought responses from farm employers across the state who grow a variety of crops, including both labor-intensive crops and those that do not require significant employee inputs. Questions included whether or not farmers had seen a shortage of on-farm employees and if so, what sorts of actions they had taken as a result.

The survey highlights included:

  • Sixty-one percent of total respondents said they experienced worker shortages of varying degrees.
  • Among responding farmers who grow labor-intensive crops—tree fruits, vegetables, table grapes, raisins and berries—71 percent reported employee shortages.
  • To deal with workforce shortages, farmers offered higher wages, delayed pruning and harvesting, used mechanization if possible, or did not harvest some of their crop.
  • Although widespread crop losses did not occur in 2012, 19 percent of farmers responding to the survey reported planting fewer acres, not harvesting a portion of their crop or giving up leased land because of a lack of available harvest help.

Farmer Fabio Peraro of Oceanside—one of 794 farm employers from across the state who responded to the survey—said he had trouble locating between 30 percent and 50 percent of his needed seasonal workers. As a result, Peraro said, he cut down avocado trees and will be planting fewer acres of vegetables in the future. He added that the lack of workers has caused him to rethink planting crops including radicchio, which is a labor-intensive crop that would require more workers.

"It is really frustrating," Peraro said. "If I plant vegetables, I need a lot of workers, but you cannot find them. You cannot plant it if you know you are not going to get enough workers. Radicchio takes a lot of work."

Winegrape grower Diego Olagaray of Lodi, who also grows alfalfa and row crops, hires between 50 and 100 people during peak times of the season. This year, his supply of seasonal workers was down by 50 percent, he said. Olagaray said his difficulties happened early in the season when it was time for thinning and pruning winegrapes, and later in the season when other competing crops needed to be harvested.

"In seasonal employees, we were down more than 50 percent and that was true for the entire area," Olagaray said. "Early this year, we just couldn't build our crews up whereas in the past, that was never an issue."

Next year, Olagaray said, he is considering planting fewer acres and possibly going to a different trellis system for grapes that is less labor-intensive and alleviates manual pruning and shoot thinning.

"Australia has been incorporating these trellises for a number of years because they do not have the source of workers that we do, so they had to resort to it earlier. I feel like we're having to go that route," Olagaray said.

The Farm Bureau report noted that farmers have been forthright about the fact that they rely on a largely immigrant workforce, and that efforts to hire U.S.-born employees on farms have been mostly unsuccessful, even during the deepest part of the recent recession. Wenger said agricultural organizations have been among the leading proponents for reform of immigration law that would allow foreign residents with secure identification to continue to work in agriculture or to enter the U.S. legally for that purpose.

"Through this survey, California farmers have given us a glimpse into what may happen if current trends continue," Wenger said. "Without the creation of a secure, effective program that allows people from foreign countries to work legally in the United States to harvest crops, we could see continuing or worsening problems, especially for small or midsized farms."

A majority of those who responded to the Farm Bureau survey were small farmers who employ between one and five permanent employees throughout the year and hire up to 50 people during peak harvest.

"Although not a scientific sampling," the report said, "the Farm Bureau survey substantiates that farm employers have experienced worker shortages through 2012 and changed their production practices in response."

Comments from respondents facing shortages indicated they increased wages to keep from losing workers to other growers.

"However, wage increases are only possible where the growers' profit margin can tolerate the erosion caused by an increase in costs for labor, which represents a critical input for many crops," the report said. "At some point, labor costs become high enough that the farmer will make longer-term investments in mechanization if it's available, change crops or reduce acreage."

In some cases, farmers who said they had been able to hire workers noted that the employees were not sufficiently skilled, meaning it took longer to complete the needed work.

The report, titled "Walking the Tightrope: California Farmers Struggle with Employee Shortages," is available on the CFBF website at www.cfbf.com.

(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.