Grower- packers experience difficulty with labor availability Labor availability continues to overshadow this season, much as it has the past few. If anything, finding skilled workers is even more difficult this season, said grower-packers.

Growers typically like a harvest crew to go through a grove multiple times to pick fruit by size, said Ken Melban, director of issues management for the Irvine-based California Avocado Commission.

But last summer"s tight labor supply caused some growers to change their harvest strategy. Most growers rely on contractors to secure picking crews.

"When you have a shortage of labor, to some degree what we experienced last year, once (growers) were able to secure the contractor, they basically did all the harvest," he said.

Dave Fausset, sales and category manager for Mission Avocado Inc., Oxnard, Calif., said labor is probably more of a concern this season than last.

"I think labor is going to be a big key for us," he said. "I think this season is going to stretch out a little bit more because of the labor situation."

Fausset cited this year"s larger crop as cause for part of that projection.

Work it out early

Scott Bauwens, director of sourcing for Murrieta, Calif.-based West Pak Avocado Inc., was encouraging growers this season to plan ahead for labor.

"It"s always good to have a harvest plan early and to align yourself with a loyal ag contractor year in and year out," he said.

Larger-scale commercial groves are more enticing to harvest crews because they provide more stable work.

But Bauwens said smaller growers are becoming more resourceful and may, for example, pool their acres to make them more attractive to harvest crews.

"We"re seeing growers working outside the box and working together, so they have a little more to offer a labor contractor," he said.

Cultural practices

Bauwens said growers also are managing tree height, keeping them in the 20- to 25-foot range, rather than letting them grow up to 50 feet.

That"s because picking crews prefer shorter trees that are easier and faster to pick.

"California has been very proactive in the cultural practices," said Doug Meyer, vice president of sales and marketing for West Pak Avocado.

"We"re also starting (picking) earlier in the season. There"s a lot of fruit on the trees, so we"re taking advantage of the labor, and it will allow us to get fruit off the trees so we don"t have a labor crunch later in the season."

Plans already made

Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and fresh marketing for Santa Paula, Calif.-based Calavo Growers Inc., said most of the larger growers already have made harvest plans. In addition, the northern production areas tend to attract more workers because they also have lemons and strawberries to pick.

The tight labor supply may prevent volumes from increasing sharply within a brief period.

"In a lot of ways, that would be a positive impact, to keep inventories from getting out of control, Wedin said.