Possible labor shortage concerns Western growers as harvest peaks

08/02/2011 05:31:00 PM
Vicky Boyd

With the rumors circulating about farm-labor shortages this season, Madera, Calif., raisin grape grower Glen Goto is holding his breath in hopes that he’ll have enough workers to cut and lay his fruit for drying.

“Last year we had a late harvest, and we got into the situation that everybody was trying to pick in a short period of time,” says Goto, who also is chief executive officer of the Fresnobased Raisin Bargaining Association. “We’re two to three days behind last year, which was almost two weeks behind normal.”

To qualify for crop insurance, raisin growers must have hand-harvested grapes laid on drying trays by Sept. 20 and machine harvested grapes down by Sept. 25.

Last season, Goto barely made the deadline, but fellow raisin grower Steve Spate, who farms in the Selma area, wasn’t as lucky. “I didn’t finish until the 25th, so I missed the insurance deadline on the last 50 acres,” says Spate, who also uses hand harvest crews.

Raisin harvest lasts about six weeks in late August and September and requires 40,000 to 50,000 workers. It also occurs about the same time as the peak harvest of other fruits and vegetables, such as melons, tomatoes and peppers, in California’s Central Valley.

Washington and Oregon apple harvest also begins about the same time, siphoning workers from California.

Smaller crews return

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, says Goto and Spate’s concerns are justified.

Beginning in February and March, Cunha visited farms to talk to workers about the labor situation.

Many of the workers told him they didn’t go home during the winter for fear of the drug cartels along the border.

Cunha says they told him about how the cartels would kidnap family members and hold them hostage, forcing the farm workers to be mules to carry drugs across the border from Mexico into the United States. Even if workers completed the tasks, their family members were often abused or killed.

“If you look at the number [of killings] that occurred by December 2010, there were 33,000 by the cartel, and these were regular human beings,” Cunha says. “It’s a real deterrent. Many of the workers who tried to come across are not coming across.”

Crews used to thin and harvest California crops average 20-25 members. But Cunha says he found the average number has dropped by four to seven members.

“It started during the [fruit] thinning season,” he says. “It was light, and we knew as we were moving forward it would get shorter and tighter.”

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