Growers hope to avoid labor shortage

03/29/2013 01:52:00 PM
Tom Burfield

Labor will be a continuing concern among California strawberry grower-shippers, even if they’re able to squeak though the current season with enough help to harvest their crops.

“The entire produce industry from coast to coast has a shortage of labor,” said Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well-Pict Inc., Watsonville, Calif.

Well-Pict tends to have adequate supplies of workers, he said. But the company no longer experiences an overflow of people looking to find work.

“We typically have had to send people away,” he said. “It isn’t so much that kind of an environment anymore.”

Finding adequate labor was not a challenge in Southern California districts this season for Watsonville-based Dole Berry Co. LLC, said Vince Ferrante, director of farming and harvesting operations.

However, he added, “It is very likely that our industry will continue to face labor issues as the harvest moves to the Watsonville/Salinas growing regions.”

Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for Watsonville-based California Giant Inc., said she hoped there won’t be a worker shortage, but she said labor is “definitely a concern throughout the ag industry.”

“So far we’re doing OK,” she said in early March. “We hope we have enough workers in the summer to get everything harvested in timely fashion and ensure quality.”

Labor is an ongoing issue and seems to be a greater problem in Salinas than other regions, said Craig Casca, chief executive officer and director of sales for Salinas-based Red Blossom Sales Inc.

“We have been working diligently to organize our employees and labor pool so we are prepared for peak season,” he said.

Labor is a particular challenge for the strawberry industry because of high yields during the summer, and because fields must be harvested multiple times, said Louis Ivanovich, principal in West Lake Fresh, Watsonville.

Increasingly, growers are using ingenuity to cope with potential labor shortages, he said.

For example, many growers use automated harvesting platforms that save workers from having to walk to the end of a row each time they fill their trays. This improves production by 25%, he said.

Watsonville-based CBS Farms expects to have adequate labor this season, said Charlie Staka, director of sales.

“We were fine last year,” he said, though labor was tight at times.

He blamed the tough economy and immigration crackdowns for the labor shortage and said he would like to see a guest worker program that would enable immigrants to work legally in the U.S.

Jewell said California Giant also is supportive of efforts by organizations like United Fresh and Western Growers that are pushing for immigration reform.

“Last year, there were times when we got behind schedule during harvesting because there were fewer people in our crews than would be ideal,” she said.

Doug Ranno, chief operating officer and managing partner for Salinas-based Colorful Harvest LLC, was in Florida recently, where he talked with some high-ranking lawmakers.

“I think all of us in the agriculture industry should be talking as loud as we can about the need for this country to have comprehensive labor reform,” he said.

“That is the crux of what helps build a strong agricultural community and, therefore, a strong economy.”

Martha Montoya, founder and chief executive officer of Orange, Calif.-based Los Kitos Produce LLC & Farms, said there is a “100% chance of a labor shortage,” even if an immigration program is approved, because workers likely will try to find jobs in the city rather than work in strawberry fields.

She believes more promotion and increased consumption are key to keeping the industry thriving.

“Strawberries should become a lifestyle or staple for our families,” she said.

Growers also must become smarter about how they use water and fertilizer and how they spend their money, she added, and create higher-yielding varieties.



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