With a statewide unemployment rate having settled in at more than 7% over the last year — nearly twice as high as it was five years ago — in New Mexico, onion-grower-shippers there say they are confident they’ll have enough workers to bring in their crop this season.
In other years, the outlook hasn’t been so bright, said Dale Gillis, owner of Arrey, N.M.-based grower-shipper Desert Spring.
“The year before last, we just couldn’t get enough employees, period. The biggest challenge is getting enough to get your onions clipped,” he said.
Gillis said there shouldn’t be any such worries this year.
“I think we’ll be all right,” he said.
“So far, it seems to be pretty consistent, so we don’t expect any shortages,” said Rosie Lack, owner of Lack Farms, one of the oldest family-owned onion operations in the state.
Dona Ana County, which leads New Mexico in onion production, had a jobless rate of 7.2% in March 2012, which matched the state average. In adjacent Luna County, just to the west, the rate zoomed to 19.9%.
Those numbers notwithstanding, there is some concern about the labor supply, said Marty Franzoy, manager/owner of Hatch, N.M.-based Skyline Produce.
“I’m a little bit worried,” he said.
Some potential workers, he said, find unemployment checks a better deal than a job that may last only through the end of a harvest.
“They’re getting a check and they’re afraid to get off (unemployment benefits), because it can take months to get back on,” Franzoy said.
Hiring seasonal labor isn’t a problem for grower-shippers who have other crops, said Scott Adams, president of Adams Produce in Hatch, N.M..
“We have them year-round because, on top of onions, we also do green chili and red chili,” he said.
Hatch, N.M.-based Shiloh Produce Inc. also keeps workers busy year-round, said Jay Hill, salesman with the grower-shipper.
“It’s good for the community and people and they do a lot better job if they work year-round with you,” Hill said.
Higher-than-normal jobless rates lessen worries about worker availability this year, said John Sheldon, a salesman with Las Cruces, N.M.-based Barker Produce.
“There are workers, with the economy the way it is,” Sheldon said.
Franzoy said he hedges his bet by mechanically harvesting onions.
“You don’t have to have the labor you would if you hand-clipped,” he said.
Instead of hiring about 100 workers to harvest his 390 acres and run his shed, he said, he can get by with 11.
There are negative tradeoffs, though, Desert Spring’s Gillis said.
“It saves labor, but you can get a lot of mechanical damage with the varieties we go here,” Gillis said.
Franzoy acknowledged as much.
“You have to watch it, you have to be precise, because damage can cost you,” he said.
There also are some costs involved in mechanically harvesting, but, in the end, the onions that go to market carry a price edge on rivals that are hand-harvested, Franzoy said.
“It makes them more competitive, and they’re just as good as the hand-clipped,” he said.
Hand harvesting remains the predominant method, though, even though it also has its own obstacles, said Steve Smith, president of Pleasant Grove, Utah-based National Onion Inc., which has an office in Las Cruces.
“There are less and less people that are available to work, with more stringent rules on the labor contractors,” he said.
It’s still the way to harvest, said Chris Franzoy, owner of Hatch-based Young Guns Produce Inc.
“All our onions are hand-topped, which is very labor-intensive but still is the best method for our area,” he said.