Farmers report shortage of help to harvest crops


Issue Date: September 23, 2015
By Christine Souza
After crews failed to show for harvest, Contra Costa County grape grower John Viano said the family decided they would have to harvest the crop on their own, including the last few acres of cabernet sauvignon.
Photo/Christine Souza
Contra Costa County winegrape grower John Viano harvests his final acres of cabernet sauvignon grapes with his son, also named John, so they could save this year’s crop after hired harvest employees failed to show. Many California growers say that finding people to work in agriculture has become more challenging than ever.
Photo/Christine Souza

With fewer acres planted as a result of the drought, many observers assumed more farm employees would be looking to do other farm-related work, but farmers throughout the state continue to report problems filling their harvest crews.

Contra Costa County winegrape grower John Viano of Viano Vineyards said a recent heat wave and a lack of employees to harvest the grapes meant family members had to move quickly and hand-harvest the crop by themselves.

"Harvesting is not something that we are unaccustomed to, but we usually get help," Viano said. "It got to a point where we said as a family that if we are to get our crop in on time, then we're going to have to harvest it ourselves."

Viano, whose winery has been in business since the 1940s, said he arranged for a few crews to come work, but they did not show.

"In the last three or four years, it has become difficult to obtain workers, mainly for harvest," he said. "This has got to be one of the worst years to get the crop harvested that we've seen in a long time."

Viano's grapes, which include zinfandel, cabernet and sangiovese varietals, must be hand-harvested, which makes the job much more labor intensive.

"We've picked about 70 percent of the crop now," Viano said. "We are not alone. There are other wineries in the county that were supposed to have crews show up and they didn't show."

Finding enough employees for harvest has also been a challenge for strawberry growers along the Central Coast.

Chris Christian, California Strawberry Commission senior vice president, said nearly every strawberry farm around the state has a sign up, soliciting employment applications.

"That has been the trend over the past three years in the strawberry industry," she said.

Employee wages have increased, Christian said, but that does not necessarily draw people to work in agriculture.

"Farmers have had to be very competitive in terms of increasing wages in order to keep workers at their fields," she said. "The same is true if workers hear that another farmer is paying a slightly higher rate or that a farmer has a higher yield, then they will simply leave that field and go to another field. That is resulting in fruit being left unharvested or fruit being stripped and thrown away."

To harvest the state's almost 40,000 acres of strawberries this year, Christian said, more growers are participating in the federal H-2A agricultural guestworker program.

"It's really just a matter of a lack of consistently available workers," Christian said. "There has been a lot more interest and a lot more H-2A (employees) being utilized by strawberry farmers this year."

Although the H-2A program can provide a guaranteed supply of workers, participants say its drawbacks include a bureaucratic application process, lack of flexibility and added cost.

Figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show use of the H-2A program has increased in California. In fiscal year 2011, the department reported it had certified 1,598 H-2A positions in the state. For the first three quarters of the current fiscal year—Oct. 1, 2014, through June 30—6,858 H-2A positions had been certified.

Farm employment experts estimate California farms and ranches hire about 400,000 people at the height of the harvest season.

Steve Scaroni, whose company harvests fresh fruit and vegetables throughout California and Arizona, uses the H-2A program to hire harvest employees. He said his demand for H-2A workers is "three times what it was from last year, and there is no doubt there is a labor shortage in many crops."

Finding enough people for harvest work is also a challenge for Tom Ikeda, a vegetable grower, packer and shipper in Arroyo Grande.

"Labor again is very tight this year. We are using one H-2A crew, which has helped, but labor is even tighter than it was last year," Ikeda said. "We have seen crop losses due to lack of labor to be able to harvest in a timely manner."

Ikeda confirmed the same trend reported by Christian at the Strawberry Commission, saying that in some instances, farm employees are declining to harvest fields that have lower yields, preferring fields that are likely to provide higher wages.

"It's been a struggle," Ikeda said. "We've probably lost 15 to 20 percent (of our crops)," referring to fields he has had to walk away from, either leaving all or a portion of the crop unharvested.

Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of employment policy and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service, said California has a tight labor market.

"This is why a lot of people are turning to the H-2A program, because a lot of times it doesn't matter how high you raise wages, it doesn't necessarily mean you are going to find the workers you need," Little said.

He said Farm Bureau supports comprehensive federal immigration reform that would include an agricultural guestworker program that would be "much more flexible and responsive to market demands" than the existing H-2A program.

"Reform should also permit current farm employees to gain legal immigration status if they need to do so, to allow them to continue to fill the key roles they perform, and to minimize disruption to rural communities and families," Little said.

University of California, Davis, doctoral student Diane Charlton and J. Edward Taylor, a professor in the university's Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, have looked to rural Mexico to seek a better understanding of why Mexican people are transitioning out of agricultural work.

"There's always been a problem of finding enough workers for a specific location when the harvest begins, because agriculture needs more workers at certain times than others. The additional challenge now is there are just fewer workers," Charlton said. "Mexico is in this stage of development that we are seeing worldwide. Per capita incomes are rising, opportunities outside of agriculture are rising."

What the trends point to, Charlton said, is "when the drought is over and we start planting more, that just means that the burden of the labor supply shortage will be even worse."

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

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.