Added variables confront coastal vegetable growers


Issue Date: January 23, 2013
By Christine Souza
Monterey County vegetable grower Chris Bunn of Crown Packing Co., examines cauliflower seedlings. Bunn says availability of harvest employees and effects of new regulations will affect vegetable plantings.
Photo/Bob Johnson
Vegetable grower Chris Bunn stands next to “giant cut-out art” by artist John Cerney on his farm in Salinas.
Photo/Bob Johnson

Along with the perennial factors of markets and weather, coastal vegetable growers considering their 2013 crop plans must also gauge how they'll be affected by the limited availability of employees and by shifting government regulations.

Chris Bunn of Crown Packing Co. in Salinas described the situation bluntly.

"The biggest challenge we have is the government; they are always on us for something," Bunn said. "We're still fighting the water runoff issue and over control of our groundwater."

Immigration policy is another challenge that must be resolved, Bunn added.

"We are concerned about labor. I don't know why they are making this so difficult and such a political football," he said. "It has got to be taken care of. They've got to do some sort of temporary work permit."

As for what Bunn will plant in the coming year, he said he intends to plant broccoli and cauliflower, followed by lettuce and then celery later in the year.

"Last year was a so-so year, but I think everybody is pretty much going to stay on course. I didn't see too much land moved around or changing hands. Everybody pretty much has the same leases and the same ground," Bunn said. "Everything is pretty much steady as she goes."

Kent Hibino, general manager at Henry Hibino Farms in Salinas, grows iceberg and leaf lettuce, celery, broccoli and cauliflower. Overall, Hibino said, last year wasn't exactly a money-maker due to increased availability of competing produce in the summer months.

To reduce the risk this year, growers may plant only what they need to and not much more. Most of what is in the ground right now is cauliflower and broccoli—spring rotational crops—and soon field activity will increase when lettuce crops are planted, Hibino said. Fall rains resulted in a bit of a delay with regard to working ground, but things are picking up.

"We're slowly but surely getting into our fields and with ground as expensive as it is around here, we want to hurry up and get it worked up because, obviously, you want to double-crop," Hibino said.

He said he intends to focus on cutting input costs such as with fuel and fertilizer, and look at increasing efficiency by adding more drip irrigation.

In the meantime, Hibino said he remains concerned about regulations farmers face, including pending food safety changes that will be handed down, but for which farmers will not earn a premium.

"A big (buyer) will want us to implement all of these changes, but they may not even choose our product because at the end of the day, it is ultimately all about price," Hibino said. "Only the largest growers will be able to absorb the cost burdens of regulation, while everyone else will have a harder time competing."

Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville described the level of activity happening in his fields as "pretty dramatic" as he figured out what was ready for harvest in different growing regions of the state. But as Peixoto looks ahead to spring, he expressed worry about whether he will be able to hire enough people to harvest his vegetable crops. That will influence what he plants in the spring.

"Because labor is so short, with the labor-intensive crops that we grow, we have to evaluate whether we can afford to grow those—not from a cost standpoint, but strictly from the standpoint of, will we have the labor to harvest them?" Peixoto said. "We have to really evaluate if we can grow them, or if we can get by without them. These would be cucumbers, green beans, English peas, snap peas—those crops that are all hand-picked and all very labor-intensive."

While much of the state's vegetable production comes from the desert through late February or early March, Central Coast vegetable plantings will begin in earnest later this month.

Chris Drew of Sea Mist Farms in Castroville said he and many of his fellow vegetable farmers will continue growing the same rotation of crops as last year. Depending on price volatility, the acreage of a particular crop may vary, but overall, it is business as usual for Central Coast vegetable growers, Drew said.

Farther south, while still harvesting crops from fall such as napa cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, kale and red and green cabbage, Tom Ikeda, a grower-shipper in Arroyo Grande, has been crunching the numbers and said he expects to plant similarly to last year.

"There are certain windows you try and hit because historically, the markets have gone up. We plant heavier for those windows because the odds for making money are a little greater," Ikeda said.

Ikeda said he may increase broccoli plantings, because it was profitable last year and in demand from his outlets in Japan and Taiwan. Although his area has seen below-freezing temperatures, Ikeda said he is taking advantage of the dry ground and moving ahead with spring plantings.

Ikeda shared the concerns expressed by fellow vegetable growers regarding government regulations, shortage of employees and the overall cost of doing business in California. Last season, he was forced to leave crops in the ground because he could not hire enough employees to complete harvest.

For the future, Ikeda said he is considering becoming more diversified into permanent crops such as citrus, avocados or winegrapes.

"We're looking for something that won't go up and down with vegetable market prices, something that would help stabilize our revenues or at least flatten those spikes and valleys in our year-to-year revenues," Ikeda said. "If the vegetable market isn't good, maybe the avocado market is and would help keep us in business. If we can get a better return over the long haul, that's what we're looking at."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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