Pacific International MarketingWorkers harvest romaine for Pacific International Marketing. Claire Wineman, president of the Guadalupe-based Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara & San Luis Obispo Counties, says labor is up to 25% tight. "That number rings pretty true to state and national averages" she says.As California strawberry production has increased in the Santa Maria district in recent years, so too has competition for labor among vegetable and berry growers.
But it’s not much fiercer there than elsewhere, said Claire Wineman, president of the Guadalupe-based Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara & San Luis Obispo Counties.
“We’ve been saying between 20% and 25% short on labor,” Wineman said. “That number rings pretty true to state and national averages. One difference is that our members report the dollar losses for strawberries are higher because they tend to be more sensitive to exact time of harvesting. There might be more flexibility with some vegetable crews.”
Feeling the pinch
“Labor is a challenge for everyone,” said Don Klusendorf, director of sales and marketing for Santa Maria-based Bonipak Produce Inc. “You have to take care of the folks that you now have and give them consistent work.”
“We are feeling a pinch in areas like the transplanting crew,” said Paul Allen, owner and president of Main Street Produce, Santa Maria. “We’re looking for more irrigators as well. We have enough to harvest broccoli and strawberries, but we can’t afford to lose any. Industrywide throughout the valley, a lot of people want to pick strawberries for piece rate. It ends up being a higher wage. We’re always having to ratchet up our wages to be competitive.”
“People are nervous as the strawberry volume increases,” he said. “They want to make sure they have enough people.”
In the district, summer planted acreage for fall production has risen from 716 in 2010 to more than 2,400, according to Wineman.
“It used to be more of a true peak in spring and summer and then a decline,” she said. “It’s closer to year-round demand for strawberry labor now.”
Broccoli and cauliflower are the big year-round vegetable crops.
A degree of relief is coming through the federal H-2A program for temporary agricultural workers.
“Last year we went from no H-2A applications to seeing a fair number in both vegetables and strawberries,” Wineman said. “We’ll continue to see H-2A applications go through the noticing and review period. Some have been approved, more for strawberries. Vegetable applications are in progress.
“There’s an increase in use of H-2A applications as a labor mechanism in the valley.”
But what coastal growers really want to see, like their counterparts elsewhere, is comprehensive immigration reform and a streamlined guest worker program.
New Customs office
Growers and laborers face a potential distraction, though, in a plan to build a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement office in Santa Maria.
That has drawn opposition from some farmworkers. More than 1,000 residents came to a March 27 city council meeting on the plan. Santa Maria had been in a rezoning process for the ICE site, and the council approved a permit. The enforcement agency seeks to relocate there from temporary facilities at the Lompoc prison.
Opponents claim the relocation would result in more deportations. Supporters, in turn, say the space would house offices, not a detention center.
“There’s significant concern from the worker base about this (ICE) office,” said Brent Scattini, vice president of sales and marketing at Santa Maria-based Gold Coast Packing Inc. “They are concerned it could potentially hurt the labor force if this office opens locally.”