Labor shortages could be the most significant issue growers of Santa Maria vegetables face this season, grower-shippers and industry officials say.

Labor was a big problem in 2012, said Claire Wineman, president of the Guadalupe, Calif.-based Grower Shippers Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

It promises to be a problem again in 2013, she said.

“The biggest thing last year was the labor shortage,” Wineman said. “We conducted a survey of members, and they reported a 20% shortage (during peak harvest times). It had a huge impact on the 2012 season, and this year we’re definitely expecting more shortages.”

Growers likely won’t get a handle on the labor situation this season until the first spring vegetable harvests get underway in April, Wineman said.

One option some growers are taking advantage of this season is sourcing labor through the federal H-2A program, Wineman said.

Through the end of March, she was aware of at least one vegetable grower in the Santa Maria Valley that has applied for H-2A.

To Wineman’s knowledge, this is the first year valley vegetable growers have sought relief through H-2A.

Applying for H-2A, however, is not a guarantee growers will get it, Wineman said. One valley farmer already has been rejected due to inadequate housing.

And H-2A is no silver bullet, she said.

“There are short- and long-term concerns with it.”

Among those concerns are potential upward pressure on wages to what could be unsustainable levels.

A possible alternative to H-2A for some growers is implementing a piece-rate system of paying harvesters, Wineman said.

Valley strawberry growers have paid harvesters on a piece-rate basis, but vegetable growers haven’t, she said.

Under the system, harvesters are guaranteed an hourly rate, and they can make additional money based on how much they pick.

Switching to piece-rate could lure more workers to the valley’s vegetable harvests, Wineman said.

The system, however, poses the risk of quality issues if workers pick too fast, she said.

The grower-shippers association also plans to lobby this year to prevent the number of overtime hours allowed for agricultural workers to be reduced from 10 hours to 8 hours per week.

Because it grows almost all of its vegetables year-round in the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Maria-based Babé Farms has a fairly stable workforce, said company co-owner Judy Lundberg.

But that doesn’t mean Babé Farms, like other vegetable growers in the valley, is immune to competition from berry growers, Lundberg said.

“It’s definitely affecting everyone,” Lundberg said of the vegetable industry’s high harvester turnover rates.

But while berry harvesting may pay better in the short term, Babé Farms stresses to its employees the job security and benefits of working for a year-round producer.

Meanwhile, on the political front, Lundberg is optimistic Washington D.C. will act soon to help growers and their employees.

“They really seem to be on the cusp of something on temporary immigration, which is of absolute necessity.”

Santa Maria-based Gold Coast Packing Inc. has sufficient labor in its plant, where year-round employment is more common, but the company’s fields are a different matter, said Brent Scattini, vice president of sales.

“We’re definitely feeling the crunch labor-wise,” he said. “There are some things we’d like to be able to do in the field that we’re unable to do.”

The good news about immigration reform is that agriculture likely will be the first beneficiary, Scattini said.

But when it will happen is anyone’s guess.

“We need a guest worker program in place very quickly, and ag is where you’ll see it first,” he said. “How quickly it will happen, I don’t know.”

Labor, as always, is a hot-button topic this season, said Don Klusendorf, director of sales and marketing for Santa Maria-based Bonipak Produce Inc.

“Labor will continue to be a challenge for all growers in and outside of Santa Maria,” Klusendorf said. “With the changes in health care and the marketplace, each grower will face increased costs in the competitive environment to hire a qualified workforce.”

It takes a concerted effort on behalf of growers, he said, to guarantee there’s good help on a regular basis.

“We do our best to keep our crews together throughout the entire year and maintain consistency.”