California growers report tight labor supply

12/05/2012 05:15:00 PM
Tom Karst

Nearly three out of four California growers of fruit and vegetable crops experienced worker shortages this year, according to a new survey.

The Sacramento-based California Farm Bureau Federation released the results of an online survey of nearly 800 of its member producers in early December. Although widespread crop losses did not occur because of labor shortages in 2012, the survey indicated 19% of farmers responding to the survey reported planting fewer acres, not harvesting a portion of their crop or giving up leased land because of a lack of available harvest help.

Among all growers polled, nearly two-thirds said they had problems hiring enough employees to cover their needs. But 71% of growers of labor-intensive crops — fruits, vegetables, grapes, and berries — had trouble finding workers.

California Farm Bureau president Paul Wenger said Dec. 5 that the survey was a first for the group.  “We’ve always talked about having labor shortages but as we go to Congress, we want of have facts and figures,” he said. Other state farm bureaus will also be conducting similar surveys, he said.

The report highlights comments from several growers who answered the survey. One tree fruit grower with acreage in Ventura, Kern and Santa Barbara counties reported experiencing employee shortages of 50% or greater. Of those tree fruit growers reporting employee shortages, the survey found 37% experienced shortages of 10% to 30% in 2012.

The report, titled “Walking the Tightrope: California Farmers Struggle with Employee Shortages,” is available online.

Growers responded to labor shortfalls by offering higher wages, delaying pruning or harvesting, using more mechanization if possible or leaving some of their crop unpicked.

The survey found that 37% of respondents with labor-intensive crops delayed pruning or other cultural practices as a result of worker shortages this year.

Wenger said the survey points to an alarming trend.

Calling the H2A program unworkable for most growers, Wenger said California Farm Bureau is calling for immigration reform that would include a more flexible guest worker program for all types of agricultural operations.



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