Grower-shippers, officials cross fingers on labor

04/15/2013 02:13:00 PM
Andy Nelson

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.


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