Labor adequate for Santa Maria Valley growers, but challenges loom

04/07/2011 10:56:00 AM
Matt Morgan

At or near the top of the 2011 to-do list for Richard Quandt, president of the Guadalupe, Calif.-based Grower-Shippers Association of Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo, is dealing with the many labor-related issues confronting Santa Maria Valley vegetable growers.

“There are a number of labor issues that are big issues for us,” Quandt said.

Quandt, a labor attorney by training and a 31-year veteran of the association, has long provided labor-related advice to his growers. Seldom, if ever, have the challenges been greater than they are now.

“We’re concerned about the specter of E-Verify, immigration reform, union status, changing overtime laws,” Quandt said, listing a few, but by no means all, of the problems Santa Maria growers face.

Growers anticipate having enough workers to pick this year’s crop, Quandt said.

Traditionally, that’s been the case, and when construction ground to a near-halt in California because of the home mortgage crisis, more labor was available for agricultural work, Quandt said.

A change in the federal law that would require e-verification, however, could help to undo all that, Quandt said.

“It would create a lot of uncertainty,” Quandt said. “People questioning whether those documents are fraudulent.”

Quandt is frustrated that Congress seems unwilling to adopt a guest-worker program, and he believes the issue requires a more big-picture approach.

“We think they need to look at it from a comprehensive level,” he said.

“Not just creating a new enforcement process without asking, ‘What will this do to the economy?’”

Challenges are coming from all over, Quandt said. The city of Santa Maria, for instance, considered an initiative to require e-verification on a local level.

It didn’t pass, but more local efforts are sure to follow. Local jurisdictions passing their own immigration laws would create a hodgepodge of different regulations that would be difficult for growers and others in the produce industry to navigate, Quandt said.

Labor issues are never far from growers’ minds, said Kevin Jordan, vice president of sales and marketing for Santa Maria, Calif.-based Adam Bros. Produce Sales Inc.

That said, everything is on track for a headache-free 2011.

“From what I understand, we’re not having problems, with our company and in this area,” Jordan said.

“We have the same crews year in and year out, and since we have year-round commodities, they’re here year-round.”



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