Growers hope to avoid labor shortage

03/29/2013 01:52:00 PM
Tom Burfield

Labor will be a continuing concern among California strawberry grower-shippers, even if they’re able to squeak though the current season with enough help to harvest their crops.

“The entire produce industry from coast to coast has a shortage of labor,” said Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well-Pict Inc., Watsonville, Calif.

Well-Pict tends to have adequate supplies of workers, he said. But the company no longer experiences an overflow of people looking to find work.

“We typically have had to send people away,” he said. “It isn’t so much that kind of an environment anymore.”

Finding adequate labor was not a challenge in Southern California districts this season for Watsonville-based Dole Berry Co. LLC, said Vince Ferrante, director of farming and harvesting operations.

However, he added, “It is very likely that our industry will continue to face labor issues as the harvest moves to the Watsonville/Salinas growing regions.”

Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for Watsonville-based California Giant Inc., said she hoped there won’t be a worker shortage, but she said labor is “definitely a concern throughout the ag industry.”

“So far we’re doing OK,” she said in early March. “We hope we have enough workers in the summer to get everything harvested in timely fashion and ensure quality.”

Labor is an ongoing issue and seems to be a greater problem in Salinas than other regions, said Craig Casca, chief executive officer and director of sales for Salinas-based Red Blossom Sales Inc.

“We have been working diligently to organize our employees and labor pool so we are prepared for peak season,” he said.

Labor is a particular challenge for the strawberry industry because of high yields during the summer, and because fields must be harvested multiple times, said Louis Ivanovich, principal in West Lake Fresh, Watsonville.

Increasingly, growers are using ingenuity to cope with potential labor shortages, he said.

For example, many growers use automated harvesting platforms that save workers from having to walk to the end of a row each time they fill their trays. This improves production by 25%, he said.

Watsonville-based CBS Farms expects to have adequate labor this season, said Charlie Staka, director of sales.

“We were fine last year,” he said, though labor was tight at times.

He blamed the tough economy and immigration crackdowns for the labor shortage and said he would like to see a guest worker program that would enable immigrants to work legally in the U.S.


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