Fresh citrus labor appears plentiful

01/19/2012 04:59:00 PM
Jim Offner

The recession that stretched into a fourth consecutive fall citrus harvest has provided a boom on the labor front, according to citrus growers, shippers and marketing agents.

“This season, we have not had any labor issues,” said Al Finch, vice president of sales and marketing for Lake Hamilton, Fla.-based Florida Classic Growers Inc.

“It’s been a good season, and we’ve had a good supply of labor.”

Workers are sometimes hard to find, particularly when harvests of different commodities overlap. Beyond that, during booming economic times, when construction companies compete for workers, there is often fierce competition for workers, growers say.

But not this year.

“It’s been manageable lately, with the economic downturn,” said Andrew Brown, a citrus grower and a director with Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

It has in Texas, as well, said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission.

How long that improvement holds on is hard to gauge, he said.

With a presidential election year having begun, growers anticipate little to be done in terms of a comprehensive immigration policy, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations with California Citrus Mutual.

“Presently, we’re in good shape. We’re certainly concerned about what the future holds with immigration reform and E-Verify and not having been able to push forward any AgJobs legislation or a viable program to provide us with a reliable work force,” Blakely said.

“It’s probably going to be one of our biggest issues in 2012 and going forward is to work on assuring we have a reliable labor force. It’s not going to go away.”

The labor front has been relatively quiet this year, but it won’t stay that way, said Richard Kinney, president of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Packers Inc.

“It’s our biggest issue, no question about it,” he said.

“We’ve got to have people to work. We can’t get U.S. citizens to do that work. We’ve got to have labor with H-2A or our Mexican friends that are out there to help pick the fruit for us.”

Growers can’t count on ready availability of workers indefinitely, said Alex Teague, senior vice president of Santa Paula, Calif.-based Limoneira Co.

“The vital subject of labor is always at the forefront,” he said.

“As the economy continues to turn around, we will see how the labor availability, which has been sufficient, will go. (We are) always cautiously optimistic but continue to push for long-term solutions, such as federal AgJobs legislation.”



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