( File photo )

The labor scene regularly has its ups and downs in California agriculture, so it's not surprising that opinions vary about the availability of workers for the upcoming avocado season.

"I don't think labor is going to be an issue this year, like it was two or three years ago," said Giovanni Cavaletto, vice president of sourcing for Index Fresh Inc., Riverside, Calif.

That's because this is an "off year" for California avocados, so there should be plenty of workers to pick the relatively light crop, he said.

Labor was tight in early February, however, because crews were running behind on the lemon harvest, he said.

Bob Lucy, partner in Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc., Fallbrook, Calif., was not so optimistic.

"Getting enough labor in 2017 will be a real concern for us," he said.

"We hope there's not a negative effect coming from Washington."

Labor is always a challenge, said Gary Caloroso, director of marketing for avocados and asparagus for Giumarra Agricom International LLC, Escondido, Calif.

The avocado industry competes with other commodities that are harvesting at the same time, he said.

"It's a bit of a challenge each season."

Securing sufficient labor this year will require some planning, said Rankin McDaniel, owner and president of McDaniel Fruit Co., Fallbrook, Calif.

"I think there will be enough labor to eventually harvest all of the crop," he said.

But he said growers won't be able to decide that they are going to start picking the next day.

Meanwhile, California's minimum wage is scheduled to hit $15 per hour by 2023, but that may not have a serious effect on avocado operations.

Pickers for Del Rey Avocado are paid by the bin, which usually is a much higher rate than the minimum wage, Lucy said.

"It really won't have a major impact on us on the harvesting portion," he said.

Grower-shippers generally agreed it's too early to predict what effect the Trump administration's immigration policies will have on labor availability.

"It's an issue we need to watch," McDaniel said.

They seem in agreement that the U.S. needs some type of immigration reform, however.

"I have always been in favor of something that is the equivalent of the bracero program that was in place years ago," McDaniel said.

That program allowed migrants to enter the U.S. legally, provided them with living accommodations and enabled them to follow crops as they moved through California.

At the end of the harvest season, they could return to their homes with no hassles, he said.

There actually has been a net emigration over the past several years because of the recession, Cavaletto said.

"A lot of entry-level jobs suffered in the U.S., and in the meantime, the economy in Mexico has improved in certain areas," he said.

As a result, many immigrants went back home, he said.

Many growers have experimented with the federal H-2A program over the past three or four years that allows workers to enter the country temporarily to fill agriculture jobs, he said.

But Index Fresh is not one of them. The program is "a little bit complex," he said.

It adds costs like transportation and housing and can cause "a little bit of friction in the fields," since H-2A workers typically are on a different pay schedule than other workers.

Mechanical harvesters for avocados may be a solution to labor shortages in the distant future, he said.

As yet, Cavaletto said he has not heard of any harvesters for avocados because the industry is too small for anyone to experiment with them.

"The evolution of (mechanical harvesters) has improved exponentially year after, so some day we may have something," he said.

 
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