On-farm labor: As harvest pace builds, farmers report shortages

Issue Date: June 12, 2013
By Christine Souza

With harvest now in full swing for a range of California commodities, farmers say they are having trouble hiring enough employees to pick their crops. As a result, wages have increased and growers must prioritize work, with harvest at the top of the list, while postponing cultural practices such as thinning.

California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little, who also serves as chief operating officer for the Farm Employers Labor Service, said he believes the reasons for the shortages are similar to those reported last year, including an aging workforce, people not coming to California to work, and an improved Mexican economy. Plus, Little said, people in Mexico talk to their relatives here and learn that the U.S. economy remains sluggish.

"Everyone that I've talked to seems to be having trouble finding people," Little said. "The side-effect of short labor is that workers have a lot more leverage, so they can be pickier about what work they'll accept. I think growers are already adjusting to that by paying higher wages."

San Luis Obispo County farm labor contractor Carlos Castañeda, whose employees are currently harvesting vegetables and strawberries, reported that crop losses have already occurred.

"As a result of this tight labor supply, one of our big customers was disking under about 30,000 units per week, and that is a tremendous amount of a commodity," Castañeda said.

To help stretch his workforce, some of Castañeda's customers are sharing crews and he moves crews from farm to farm.

"If I have one crew wrapping up at 2 o'clock, then I can send them down the road to help with another grower so he doesn't lose his crop. It is not easy and it is much more costly. I had to hire basically somebody that does nothing but logistics to coordinate it," Castañeda said.

He added that some of his employees are leaving agriculture to return to construction work.

"I'm losing some good, long-term guys to construction. They were in construction at the (housing) peak, they came back when housing fell apart, and now I'm losing them," he said. "As housing continues to pick up, you are just squeezing this labor pool."

Imperial County farmer Mark McBroom said having 10 percent to 20 percent fewer employees to harvest grapefruit has caused some fruit to go soft.

"We're still harvesting grapefruit, and I'm looking at 112 degrees today and our fruit is getting a little bit soft," McBroom said Friday. "We're probably two weeks behind where we ought to be as far as harvesting goes."

A two-week delay in grapefruit harvest, he said, translates into poor utilization of the crop, and he is earning less money for the fruit.

In his date crop, McBroom said, trees need to be hand-thinned and tied, but he's about 30 percent short of help.

"We've been really short on people this year," McBroom said. "The fruit has gotten bigger and when it gets bigger, it costs more because they move slower through the big bunches."

Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League, reported a "continuing trend of a tightening supply of labor" for fruit crops.

"We keep hearing of people saying, 'We wanted X people in a crew and we only ended up with Y,'" Bedwell said.

Daniel Jackson of Family Tree Farms in Reedley just concluded blueberry harvest and is now harvesting a number of tree fruit varieties. He said a smaller pool of workers makes it even tougher on smaller farmers.

"Some of my friends are guys with 20 to 80 acres that need a crew here and there and don't have consistent work for people; they are having a hard time being able to get crews to do the small things that they typically do every year," Jackson said. "They just don't have the work to keep a crew working all of the time."

Jackson said labor represents about 70 percent of his overall cost and this year, wages have increased by $1 an hour.

"This tightening labor supply is resulting in higher wages," Bedwell said. "We had heard an economist that pooh-poohed the idea of a labor shortage because he said wages would go up. Well, wages are going up and the base rates that we've seen in certain areas have increased rather dramatically."

Winegrape grower Bruce Fry of Lodi said the pool of workers that he has relied on year after year is shrinking.

"My core group of employees that return each year is getting smaller. Some of these workers tell me that they are leaving to take other jobs," Fry said. "I don't know where they are going, but they are disappearing slowly. In years past, we had people knocking on the door asking for employment—but not now."

With grapes maturing faster than usual this year, Fry said he is trying to accomplish tasks in a timely manner, which he said is difficult with not enough hands to do the shoot thinning, suckering, tying and leaf pulling that is needed in the vineyard.

"I'm now prioritizing. I find out which vineyards I'm behind the most on and do those first, instead of my normal routine," Fry said.

To learn more about the scope of the on-farm labor shortage and where impacts are occurring, CFBF created a short, online survey for members to complete. The survey opened a week ago, and Little said early responses show that most respondents are not able to hire as many people as they need. Many respondents reported they are short on labor by 30 percent or more. Other responses so far indicated that farmers are paying higher wages to attract more employees and are also delaying cultural practices.

In 2012, nearly two-thirds of farmers who responded to a similar survey said they experienced challenges finding enough employees to help tend and harvest crops.

The 2013 version of the online survey remains open and farmers may take part at www.cfbf.com/laborsurvey.

(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.