Small labor pool, small fruit sizes hit peach farmers
By Christine Souza
José Duran loads cling peaches into a bin at a farm near Yuba City. Peach growers in the area report troubles hiring enough people for their early harvest.
A grower compares a peach that canneries will accept with one too small to meet the standard.
Farmer Kulwant Johl, right, sorts cling peaches with employee Faqir Masih.
As California's cling peach harvest nears its peak in Yuba and Sutter counties, growers report problems including small-to-average-sized peaches and the availability of fewer skilled workers to pick the fruit.
Farmer Kulwant Johl, whose grandfather began growing peaches in the Yuba City area in the 1920s, said he's worried about the next few weeks, when the bulk of the midseason cling peach varieties will be ready for harvest.
"I am concerned. Harvest of early cling peach varieties started two weeks ago. At the beginning of harvest, there is usually plenty of labor and towards the end of the season, there's always a shortage," said Johl, who chairs the California Farm Bureau Federation Labor Advisory Committee. "If we are short at the start of the season, what is going to happen at the end? That is what scares me."
At the same time, neighboring peach grower Sarb Johl said much fruit has ended up on the ground due to the smaller-than-average size of this year's crop, likely due to a July hot spell that slowed fruit growth, as well as a lack of labor during thinning. As peaches are picked and sorted, small fruit and those with defects not accepted by the processor end up on the orchard floor.
California Canning Peach Association President and CEO Rich Hudgins said sizing is a significant problem this year.
"Due to the fact that 60 percent of our crop remains to be picked, the easiest thing we can say is this is going to be the smallest crop since 2006, and more significantly, it's going to be only the third time in modern history that we've delivered less than 400,000 tons for the crop," Hudgins said. "At this point, (for processors) it's been literally watching the ground shift beneath their feet. The industry in the last couple of years has been dealing with surplus and moving excess inventory into the marketplace. Now, we've got to make our existing pack carry us to the next crop year."
As a result of the reduced crop size, Hudgins said, growers and processors have elected not to rush into a price agreement for 2012 until more of the crop has been harvested.
Growers in the Yuba-Sutter area say they will soon know if there will be enough skilled employees available to harvest even this smaller crop.
"This week and the two weeks following is really going to be the litmus test. At the end of this week, we'll be getting into where 60 percent of our tonnage is. Then the three weeks after that is when we're going to find out," Sarb Johl said. "Everything is going to have to be picked and in a timely fashion."
After Northern California media outlets portrayed the Yuba-Sutter region as suffering from a severe shortage of labor, more than 100 residents responded by offering to help pick fruit. The Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau agreed to pass information from those looking for work to farm labor contractors who were hiring people. Megan Foster, executive director of the county Farm Bureau, said very few applicants had harvesting experience.
"The problem is the people looking for work are, unfortunately, not the skilled laborers that growers need. An experienced peach picker can pick around seven (1,000-pound) peach bins every six hours, so it is a huge amount of work that they are doing," Foster said.
Sarb Johl explained that hiring an unskilled worker to harvest peaches would harm his bottom line. If he paid a person minimum wage and the employee only picked one bin of fruit a day, it would cost Johl $120 per bin ($80 in wages and about $40 for payroll taxes). What he would get paid, compared to what he already has invested in the crop, would not pencil out.
"If it's going to cost me that much to pick it, I'm going back in the hole. It is better for me not to pick it," Johl said.
He said he and his fellow growers understand that people need employment and appreciate that folks want to help growers.
"There is an American spirit out there. When we are in need, people do step up. Their intent is genuine. They come around and say, 'What can I do to help get your crop picked?' That just shows what this country is all about," Johl said. "Unfortunately, they don't realize what the job entails. It is hard work and trying to get the right people to do the right task is the hardest part. We need skilled workers."
José Duran has worked picking peaches for five years. At a rate of $20 a bin, he climbs up and down ladders picking fruit, and collects the peaches in bins destined for the processor. Duran, who lives near Oroville, said he enjoys picking peaches.
"It's fun and pretty good money," Duran said. "Anyone can pick peaches, but they won't be as fast as me."
The outcome of this season may influence growers to decide whether to continue growing cling peaches or transition to crops that are more mechanized and require less labor.
"Most of the farmers are pushing out peaches and planting walnuts and almonds, which do not require hand labor," said Kulwant Johl, who said he might consider such a change.
California cling peach acreage has declined 28 percent during the past eight years.
"Our industry has been shrinking over the years. Everything around here used to be all peaches. We didn't have a single walnut on this ranch here; now we're 60 percent walnuts," Sarb Johl said. "We're down to less than half of what we used to do in peaches and we will probably continue to shrink. At the same time, the nut category is doing so much better and it is all mechanized. There's a lot less risk."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.