FRESNO, Calif. — If the size of stone fruit thinning crews this spring is any indication, labor during the table grape season will be tight.
The question remains of just how tight, said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League.
“It’s getting worse,” Cunha said at the end of May, citing responses to a survey the league sent to California farm labor contractors in mid-May.
“The problem is there are increasing shortages in crew sizes.”
Should those shortages continue, they could be especially problematic for table grape grower-packer-shippers.
“Table grape packers are very special people — they have a talent of their own,” Cunha said.
“They have to know how to pack, how to clip and how to handle the grapes.”
Another group uses wheelbarrow-like carts to move grapes from the vineyard to the packing stands at the end of each vineyard row.
“The packers may be back, but the people who bring the grapes to the packers may not be back,” Cunha said.
It’s not just harvest crews or other field workers. Cunha said he’s hearing of workers not returning to packinghouse jobs.
If a forklift operator, for example, doesn’t return, then the packinghouse manager may have to pull a worker from another position, leaving that job vacant.
Ron Wikum, table grape category manager for Reedley-based Bravante Produce, said labor was a little tight near the end of May, when workers were applying thinning and sizing treatments to vineyards and pulling leaves on some varieties.
He expected table grape harvest to begin the first week of July and continue into early fall.
“I hope we survive it,” Wikum said.
The table grape harvest coincides with late stone fruit and vegetable harvests in the San Joaquin Valley. And harvest crews may be tempted by better offers.
“What happens when you don’t have work every day, and the workers are off two to three days?” Cunha said.
“They’ll leave that contractor and go and find a grower or contractor who’s working fulltime.”
So it will be even more important this season for farm labor contractors to coordinate among grower-clients to provide full-time work opportunities, he said.
At the same time — late August through September — raisin growers need about 26,000 workers for a six-week period to cut grapes, lay them on paper trays, turn the trays and gather the raisins once they’re dry.
Cunha cited several reasons for the ever-tightening agricultural labor supply.
Fewer workers are coming across the Mexico-U.S. border because of higher costs.
Drug cartel activity along the border also has scared many workers from risking a crossing.
In addition, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up employer audits.
In March and again in mid- to late May, the Nisei Farmers League surveyed labor contractors throughout California to get a better idea about worker availability and crew size.
In March, thinning crews that only a few years ago numbered 20-25 workers were down to 15-16, Cunha said.
Since then, reports now peg crew size at about 12 workers.
Although he didn’t have hard data, Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League, said he’s also heard anecdotally from grower-members that labor supplies were tight and growing tighter.
“There are less people for cultural activities preparing for harvest,” he said.
“I think people are particularly on edge the farther north you get.”
At the same time, Congress continues to debate E-Verify, an electronic system that can quickly verify whether a worker has legal work status.
Bedwell said league members aren’t necessarily opposed to E-Verify as long as Congress and the administration implement comprehensive and meaningful immigration reform beforehand.
Without reform, he said agriculture will eventually outsource production to other countries.
The league also supports Assembly Bill 1544 — the California Agricultural Jobs and Industry Stabilization Act — by V. Manuel Perez, D-Coachella.
If approved, the bill would allow the state to grant work permits to illegal immigrants, allowing them to stay in the state.
Although Bedwell said the bill will have a tough time passing, he said the public awareness it creates will continue to put pressure on federal lawmakers to reform immigration.