New Mexico onion growers have wrestled with labor issues for years; a handful of growers even tried mechanical harvesting as a way to skirt some labor costs and cut their manpower needs.
A number of growers have dismissed mechanical methods as too harsh on a product that often requires a gentle hand.
“Mechanically harvesting new crop mild onions, I think, is a little bit more challenging than the longer-day storage-type onions, just because of its higher water content and it bruises a lot easier,” said Jeff Brechler, salesman and grower liaison with Deming, N.M.-based J&D Produce.
Steve Smith, president of Pleasant Grove, Utah-based National Onion Inc., which has an office in Las Cruces, N.M., said mechanical harvesting has been tried, and it has failed.
“People have tried it, but there’s not a machine out there that can handle them without beating them up pretty good,” he said.
That leaves few options for labor, Smith said.
“Almost everybody is doing hand-harvest, so it’s harder and harder every year to find enough people,” he said.
Mechanical harvesting can be done, said Marty Franzoy, a Hatch, N.M.-based grower.
“We were the only ones that did it for 14 years,” Franzoy said.
The knock against machine harvesting is overstated, he said.
“When we first did it, we did mostly processing onions, but for the last four or five years, I did strictly fresh market and I’ve been very successful,” he said, noting that he will employ hand and mechanized harvesting this year.
Between cost and worker availability, the challenge of labor never ends, said Bill Coombs, salesman with Arrey, N.M.-based Desert Springs Produce.
Indeed, he said, it seems to get worse each year.
The Gillis family, who own Desert Springs Produce, have their own means of meeting the challenge, Coombs said.
“They recruit college kids and bring them in, and the college kids will work for them for the season and they’ll maybe help them pay for their books and do different things,” Coombs said.
He said some of the “leaders” in the packing shed are college students.
“A lot these kids come back all four years of school because it’s a nice deal for them,” Coombs said.
There’s a risk in hiring students for the summer harvest, however, said Jay Hill, salesman with Hatch-based Shiloh Produce Inc.
“A lot of times, they’ll hire high school kids, but once school comes back, those kids are going to go back to school and that will hurt at the end of the season,” he said.