Many California produce grower-shippers keep their workers harvesting even at times there is little demand for product so that they stay busy and don't leave for another operation. ( Ashley Nickle )

Securing adequate labor has been a challenge throughout the California produce industry in recent years, and the labor market tends to get even tighter during the summer, when growers of dozens of fruits and vegetables vie for workers to harvest their crops.

As of early July, however, growers of California lettuce and leaf items seemed to be able to fill most of their current labor needs.

“It’s been a challenge keeping the same people in some areas,” said Henry Dill, vice president of sales for Ippolito International LP, Salinas, Calif.

So far, the company hasn’t lost any product because of a lack of labor, he said.

“It’s just made for more of a challenge to organize and set up our harvest.”

The firm may have to give out some overtime pay to cover all the ground that needs to be farmed, but Dill said, “By and large, we’ve been OK.”

Many companies take advantage of the federal government’s H-2A program to bring in temporary agricultural workers, he said, but so far, Ippolito International has not had to use it.

Boggiatto Produce Inc., Salinas, Calif., has helped fill its labor needs by participating in the H-2A program, said Tom Cornwell, sales representative.

“The local workforce has dwindled over the years,” he said.

The company now has a “substantial labor force” thanks to the government program.

Although Salinas-based Coastline Family Farms has had “a day here and there” when it was difficult to secure a full labor force, overall, the company has managed to come up with enough workers, said Tami Gutierrez, vice president of sales and marketing.

“Currently we’re getting along just fine,” she said in late June.

Labor is “an issue right now” for Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif., said Luke Patruno, who handles organic sales.

“That’s an ongoing problem,” he said.

He expects finding ample labor this season to be as much of a challenge as it was last year.

In fact, the company is reluctant to stop harvesting, even when there’s not much demand for a particular product.

Labor is also an important issue for Salinas-based Pacific International Marketing Inc., said sales representative Chris Deoudes.

In fact, the company is reluctant to stop harvesting, even when there’s not much demand for a particular product.

“We want to keep our crews busy and keep them employed and keep them here for when the market conditions turn around,” he said.

A number of grower-shippers are working just because want to keep their crews busy, he said.

It’s like being a riverboat gambler, Deoudes said.

“You hope the situation improves, and that you make your costs back (by) the end of the year,” he said.

“You don’t want (workers) to go somewhere else and lose them altogether.”

Some laborers have been wooed by strawberry growers, who can pay higher wages, he said.

You hope the situation improves, and that you make your costs back (by) the end of the year. You don’t want (workers) to go somewhere else and lose them altogether.

Grower-shippers say they would like to see the government take some action to resolve the immigration issue, but no one seems confident that a resolution will happen anytime soon.

Dill of Ippolito International said he doesn’t know what the government might do when it comes to solving the immigration dilemma.

“Everybody in our business hopes that there are going to be some positive steps taken,” he said.

Although the focus generally is on West Coast labor needs, Dill said some East Coast growers who want to expand their farming operations are having trouble finding labor to harvest what they plant.

“I don’t think they expected that there was going to be an issue,” he said. “It’s been a challenge for them.”

Gutierrez of Coastline Family Farms said she also would like to see some kind of immigration reform.

“I don’t know how or when that’s going to happen,” she said.

 
Comments