Jobs continue to go unfilled, farmers report


Issue Date: July 17, 2013
By Christine Souza

As Congress grapples with how to reform the nation's immigration system, California farmers and farm labor contractors say they remain unsure whether they will be able to hire enough seasonal employees for harvest and for important cultural practices.

To learn about the scope of on-farm labor shortages and where the impacts are occurring, the California Farm Bureau Federation has been conducting an online survey of its members. So far, according to CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little, trends look similar to a survey conducted last year, when more than two-thirds of respondents said they experienced challenges finding enough employees to help tend and harvest crops.

"The CFBF survey will give us important information to use to convince policymakers in Washington to act on immigration reform," said Little, who also serves as chief operating officer for the Farm Employers Labor Service.

The U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill in late June, including agricultural provisions supported by Farm Bureau, other farm organizations and labor unions. Last week, House Republicans said they would not seek to pass a comprehensive bill but would consider a series of separate immigration-reform measures.

Meanwhile, farmers responding to the Farm Bureau survey say they continue to have trouble finding qualified help.

San Joaquin County winegrape grower Brad Goehring, who is also a farm labor contractor, said he had experienced up to 50 percent shortages in hiring seasonal workers, especially when harvest of other crops siphoned off employees.

"During the two-month period at cherry season, we just didn't have labor available to do what we needed to be doing out in the vineyards. I could have used another 300 to 400 workers during that time," Goehring said. "A lot of people who normally wouldn't call me as a (farm labor contractor) were calling me, just desperate for anybody. I could have put 400 more workers to work, easily."

For Goehring and other winegrape growers, May and June were challenging months to find employees. With a smaller pool of workers, Goehring and many of his fellow growers had to delay cultural practices such as suckering and shoot thinning of winegrapes.

"We haven't been able to shoot-thin all of the vineyards that we would have liked," Goehring said. "The ones we do shoot-thin, by the time we're done our costs have increased from $100 to around $300 an acre, because the more the vines grow, the harder it is to shoot-thin."

He said he has had to delay certain vineyard practices and, although the practices are being accomplished so far, "our costs are higher because of lack of labor and getting into the vineyards to do the work in a timely manner."

Nancy Fowler-Johnson, president and general manager of Fowler Nurseries Inc. in Newcastle, said her business has experienced a shortage of employees for the past two years.

"Right now, we can't get enough staff. They are just not there," Fowler-Johnson said. "We could have used an additional 12 to 14 people starting at the end of April through the remainder of the season."

With nut crops doing well and more trees planted each year, Fowler-Johnson reported having to turn away sales this year because she could not hire enough skilled employees to care for the products in the way that she would like.

"We never had a real shortage until last year, and it is worse this year. And it is about finding people who are skilled," she said.

To remain competitive, Fowler-Johnson said she is going to "continue to look at how to grow trees differently, what methods can be optimized, and wages."

"There's a point in time where I still need to be competitive," she said. "We are interested in learning how to become more mechanized and how we can do things differently."

Farmers of a variety of labor-intensive crops have reported to the CFBF labor survey that they are experiencing problems finding enough employees, including winegrapes, tree fruit, nut crops, vegetables and nursery products. Growers of a number of other crops have also reported shortages.

The 2013 CFBF labor survey remains open and farmers may take part at www.cfbf.com/laborsurvey.

See related commentaries:

Immigration reform must address farms' unique needs

Everyone has a stake in outcome of immigration debate

(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.