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.”

Spring in California’s Central Valley was marked by a prolonged cool spell, followed by spikes in temperature. The sudden hot weather caused many of the crops, such as stone fruit, to come off all at once, prompting a need for a speedy harvest and more workers.

California has about 500,000 total seasonal workers, Cunha says. During the peak harvest in July and August, Cunha says the Central Valley alone needs about 230,000 workers.

To make up the shortfall, some growers have turned to H2-A guest workers. Among the steps employers must take to qualify are providing transportation and housing and paying the area’s going wage as determined by the Department of Labor.

Most growers give up because the application process is so arduous, Cunha says, citing the 300-page application as an example.

What he says he fears is a repeat of 1998, when the Central Valley was short about 80,000 workers.

“Right now what I’m hearing is what happened in 1998,” he says.

Legislation passed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson created a welfare-to-work program that enlisted the help of agricultural employers. The theory was welfare recipients could be trained to do farm work and fill the gaps created by migratory labor.

Of the 137,000 people on welfare who were eligible to work, 503 applied for positions, Cunha says. Of those, only three showed up to go to the field, and none completed a day’s work.

Disaster in Georgia

California growers say their labor concerns relate to their counterparts in Georgia, who began seeing labor shortages shortly after the governor signed a tough new immigration enforcement law on May 13. Yet the law, which is similar to Arizona’s, actually didn’t go into effect until July 1.

South Carolina and Alabama also have enacted laws that are as tough as or tougher than Arizona’s.

“There were rumors that there were roadblocks of county law enforcement and state law enforcement waiting for harvest crews to come up from Florida to Georgia,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association in LaGrange.

Harvest crews that did make the trip north from Florida arrived with only onethird to one-half of the workers. Even many farm workers who lived in Georgia and had legal work status decided to leave the state to avoid hassles.

At the same time, a lingering drought in Georgia caused vegetable crops to come off much faster than normal, Hall says.

“A lot of growers left crop in the field,” he says.

An unscientific survey showed 11,000 farm jobs were vacant.

Growers tried to fill the void by hiring local help, but with few takers, Hall says. The state made headlines when Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced a plan to put probationers to work in the fields harvesting crops.

One of the conditions of probation for these non-violent offenders is they have to work, according to a press release from the Georgia Department of Corrections. Of the 8,000 probationers in southwest Georgia, 25 percent are unemployed.

The experiment has yielded mixed results, with most probationers walking off farm jobs during the first week.

The peach season, which runs through August, hasn’t been hit as hard by labor shortages because the state’s four largest peach growers rely on the H2-A guest worker program, Hall says.

“Most of the H2-A employers haven’t had the problems of the non-H2-A employers,” he says.

Nevertheless, those peach growers have seen contract requests denied by the Department of Labor, fewer workers and workers arriving one to two weeks late, Hall says.

And he says he fears the situation won’t improve next season.

“There’s a good chance it’s going to be worse next year,” he says.

By now, vegetable growers have had to make plans of what to plant this summer for October and November harvest, he says.

“There are a lot of growers right now who have to make decisions about what they’re going to do in the fall,” Hall says. “Some growers would rather not make money than put plants in and not be able to harvest them.

“Cotton prices are very good and corn prices are good, so some growers are seriously looking at row crops next year.”



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