Raisin growers hope labor lasts through harvest

Issue Date: September 5, 2007
Christine Souza

Madera raisin growers Nadine and Chester Helmuth say they face tight labor supply.

California's raisin harvest began a week earlier than normal and growers say they hope this gives them the jump-start they need to hire an adequate supply of workers to harvest their crops. However, as more growers begin harvest, finding workers could become a challenge.

Facing a tight labor supply, Madera raisin growers Chester and Nadine Helmuth, who have been growing raisins for almost 60 years, say they're trying to remain optimistic that they will get their crop completely harvested.

"More workers arrived today so I feel a little better," Nadine Helmuth said last week. "We have 60 acres that still remain to be picked and they just started on 20 acres so that means 40 acres have not yet been touched. It is hard to be optimistic at the moment because I don't know whether we will get all of our acreage picked."

Raisin grower Alan Kasparian, who is the manager of grower relations for Biola Raisin Co. and Fresno County Farm Bureau first vice president, said additional pressure will be put on the labor supply as more growers begin harvest.

"We're hoping we will make it through, but it is going to be tight given the climate of not having a true AgJOBS bill and of really not dealing with immigration like we should," Kasparian said. "Because of indecision on the part of Congress and the lack of will to really deal with the situation, this industry and a lot of other ag industries are trying to find ways to mechanize."

Mechanized methods of harvesting grapes for raisins have been around for about 30 years; however, it was not until the last few years that growers have really taken advantage of this technology as they face an increasingly tight labor supply.

"We've estimated that in the past when we didn't have as much mechanized harvesting, that we needed 50,000 workers during the four-week harvest period from September to October," said Glenn Goto, chief executive officer of the Raisin Bargaining Association. "Now it is more like 20,000 to 30,000 workers. That is still a lot of workers in that short period of time."

Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the raisin harvest has changed from hand harvesting to some sort of mechanized method such as drying on the vine or harvest by machine.

"Mechanization is helping to relieve some of the labor pressure but that doesn't mean we don't need labor, because we do. We still need workers to hand harvest the majority of the raisins as well as for pruning, tying and other things," Kasparian said. "It is desirable to mechanize, but there is really nothing that substitutes for hand labor. However, if you can't get the labor, then you have to do something."

Fresno County raisin grower Rick Stark uses a combination of both hand and machine harvesting. So far, Stark is encouraged that there will be enough labor to complete harvest.

"It is a little early to know yet, but it is encouraging so far. The season is getting off to an early start, which should allow our labor to go further," Stark said. "Some of the crews are running at less than capacity, but we're not hearing of people not being able to get crews. We're optimistic that things are going to be OK."

A labor contractor from the Fresno area who did not wish to be quoted directly said he believes the raisin harvest will be drastically short of labor this year. The contractor has been in the business of agriculture for 25 years and said one reason for the shortage is the lack of young people entering into agriculture.

Madera raisin grower Thomas Hagopian remains hopeful.

"I hope we have enough labor. I have probably about 15 or 20 people that live on my property and work for me during the year. They work for others and when I have harvesting or pruning, they work for me," Hagopian said. "We will probably need about 25 people. If I get 20 I can get by. I've completed harvest with 18 workers. It takes a little longer, but we'll get it done."

Another issue on the horizon for growers is the Department of Homeland Security's new "no-match" rule, which takes effect Sept. 14. It affects employers notified by the Social Security Administration that employee Social Security numbers reported to SSA do not match SSA records. The rule's summary says if a discrepancy involving an employee is not resolved and the employee's identity and work authorization cannot be verified by a reasonable procedure, then the employer should fire the employee. Otherwise, the employer risks a DHS finding that the letter gave the employer constructive knowledge that the employee was not work authorized and, by continuing to knowingly employ an unauthorized person, the employer broke the law.

"Anytime the government starts putting the onus on private individuals for what the government has failed to do, it is a problem," Kasparian said.

"We are not DHS, we are not the former INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and we are not someone that should be playing detective for our workers. It is blatantly unfair and it is really a cause of the government not enforcing what is already on the books," he said.

Fresno County agricultural commissioner Jerry Prieto cautioned that no one knows what will happen when the no-match rule goes into effect. The 90 days employers will have to resolve their workers' eligibility would bring it to a head about the time citrus harvest starts.

Prieto is concerned about the smaller towns where workers lost jobs because of the freeze and what may happen to those economies if suddenly people are again out of work. Prieto said most growers are anxious about how the situation may develop regarding labor.

Ninety-nine percent of the raisin production in the United States occurs within 100 miles of Fresno County. Of the state's annual raisin production of 300,000 tons, roughly two-thirds of it is sold to domestic markets and one-third is for export.

This year's California raisin crop is projected to come up 18 percent from last year, according to information provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's California Agricultural Statistics Service. The Raisin Bargaining Association, a grower-owned cooperative that bargains for the field price for raisins, reports that the state's raisin sector could use a good-sized crop this year.

"Last year's crop was one of the smallest crops in the history of raisin grapes. Our inventories are in very good balance right now, so we could use a good crop," said Goto. "We market 300,000 tons of raisins on an annual basis so we would like to produce that amount. Last year we weren't able to. We were only able to deliver 283,000 tons, so we drove down our inventories substantially so we need to produce 300,000 tons."

Goto confirms that the grapes look excellent for raisins this year.

"From what we've witnessed, the quality has been very good with minimal disease pressure. We are seeing good amounts of sugar this early in the season and any acids are on the low side, which is a good indicator for making a good raisin," Goto said.

The high temperatures hitting Fresno will help facilitate the drying process, Goto said, but growers need to keep a careful watch that the grapes do not get so hot that they caramelize and burn. Although berry size is not as large as in some seasons, Nadine Helmuth said that overall it is a good crop year for Fresno-area raisin growers. She said fruit quality is excellent with high sugar content and she expects that will translate into good yields.

"I feel like it is going to be a good year.I don't think we are going to have an overabundant supply, but I feel we will be able to hang in there," she said. "You don't really know until you deliver the raisins to the packing house. We just need to get the grapes dried and hopefully it doesn't rain any more than it did last week, then I can say yes, we are going to make it."

Last Thursday, Central Valley raisin growers were caught off guard by light rain showers, lightning and thunderstorms. The storms weren't significant where the Helmuths farm, so they kept crews picking. They were determined to continue with harvest while they had the workers.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for 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.