Water And Labor Shortages Continue To Distress California Growers

Every year there are challenges to vegetable crop production in the coastal production district of California, but 2014 provided some particularly difficult issues for growers to address. Two essential elements to vegetable production — water and labor — are both in short supply. Either one of these challenges would be enough to disrupt a vegetable production operation, so dealing with both issues at once is taxing growers to the max.

The number of acres utilizing drip irrigation has risen from 14% in 2002 to 58% in 2012. Photos courtesy of Richard Smith.
The number of acres utilizing drip irrigation has risen from 14% in 2002 to 58% in 2012. Photos courtesy of Richard Smith.

This is the third dry year on the Central Coast and the reservoirs that meter water into the Salinas Valley are exceptionally low and will not be able to replenish the ground water resources for the entire season. Growers are adjusting to the lower levels of available irrigation water by irrigating more efficiently. The number of acres utilizing drip irrigation has risen from 14% in 2002 to 58% in 2012.

In the early years, drip use in vegetables was primarily for crops such as pepper and lettuce; however, growers are expanding that crop list to include others, like onions and broccoli. The adoption of more efficient irrigation technologies will go a long way to improve the situation with tight water supplies. However, we’re going to need a good wet year to help refill the reservoirs and groundwater supplies. Everyone is anxiously watching the news of a predicted El Niño for the 2014-15 rainy season and any increase in rainfall it may bring.

Technology And Labor Shortage
The other constraint growers face is a shortage of labor. The availability of labor is a serious issue that affects growers in two ways: They have more trouble getting key jobs done in a timely fashion and it has generally increased costs as labor moves from the lower pay-scale duties, such as thinning lettuce, to higher pay-scale duties. Fortunately technology is now becoming available to help growers manage this situation.

For example, four companies began offering automated thinning machines in 2013, and initial evaluations were conducted by growers. In 2014, growers are continuing the evaluation process; however, some have already reported they are satisfied with the results, and are using the machines to thin a growing percentage of their acreage.

As the sophistication and capability of technology continues to advance, additional machines will be developed to address other production issues and help reduce labor shortages. For instance, in Europe several companies are producing machines that can remove weeds from within the seedline of transplanted crops. These weeders use machine vision and computers to activate blades that remove weeds.

The speed and reliability of these machines has improved a great deal over the past six to seven years. These units are not in the U.S. yet, but as pressure increases on growers to address labor issues, technologies like this may become more important.

Finger-weeders can reduce weeds in the seedline and reduce or eliminate subsequent hand weeding.
Finger-weeders can reduce weeds in the seedline and reduce or eliminate subsequent hand weeding.

Low-Tech Options
In addition to the high-tech machinery, there are lower-tech ideas such as the use of finger weeders to help reduce weeds in the seedline and reduce or eliminate the need for hand-weeding operations. A YouTube video we put together discusses the efficiency of these implements for organic growers: http://bit.ly/1jZTvUq.

There is now a U.S.-based distributor for the European-style finger weeders, Washington Tractor (www.washingtontractor.com), which can facilitate access to this technology.  

Mechanical Lettuce Harvesters
Mechanical harvesters for lettuce are another example of technology helping growers address labor needs. Mechanical harvesting has been the subject of extensive conversation for many years, but only in the last couple of years has this technology emerged as a viable alternative for growers.

The current harvesters are only used for bulk lettuce grown for the salad plants and not for market lettuce. However, it is encouraging to watch this technology emerge and to see how far it will develop over the coming years.

In general, labor shortages are likely to persist in the short-term, however, the development of techno-
logy and machinery that can assist growers in coping with this issue has been very welcome.

Topics: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Production Stories
Citrus
January 16, 2017
First Bee in Continental U.S. Listed as Endangered Species
Rusty patched bumble bee receives protection from activities that could cause it to go extinct. Read More
Example of how farmers can use iPads to track data around his operation
Citrus
January 16, 2017
Precision Agriculture and Big Data Gaining Traction Fast
Specialty crop adoption of hort tech to usher in new efficiencies and transparency. Read More
Urban vegetable farm in rural Cuba
Citrus
January 15, 2017
New Transitional Certification Program to Foster Organic Growth Receives USDA Approval
The program will be based on standards developed by the Organic Trade Association. Read More
Organic
January 10, 2017
Industry Veterans Form Organic Produce Network
Former vice presidents of two California vegetable giants join forces to create new company to connect the organic produce community. Read More
More Vegetables
January 10, 2017
High Tunnel, Greenhouse Vegetable IPM Webinars Slated for February and March
Topics to be covered include production and disease, insect, and weed management tactics. Read More
Production
January 5, 2017
Reduce Soil Compaction for Improved Plant Vigor
Manage through a hard situation by focusing on tillage systems and minimizing field traffic. Read More
Citrus
January 3, 2017
Soil Health Institute Launches Web-Based Soil Health Research Landscape Tool
The tool allows users to connect soil health problems, management actions, and desired outcomes with research addressing a user’s particular situation. Read More
The Latest
Citrus
January 19, 2017
New Technology Could Take Weather Intel …
Scientists aiming to make difficult climate-based production decisions easier for growers. Read More
Citrus
January 16, 2017
First Bee in Continental U.S. Listed as …
Rusty patched bumble bee receives protection from activities that could cause it to go extinct. Read More
Citrus
January 15, 2017
New Transitional Certification Program t…
The program will be based on standards developed by the Organic Trade Association. Read More
More Vegetables
January 10, 2017
High Tunnel, Greenhouse Vegetable IPM We…
Topics to be covered include production and disease, insect, and weed management tactics. Read More
Production
January 5, 2017
Reduce Soil Compaction for Improved Pla…
Manage through a hard situation by focusing on tillage systems and minimizing field traffic. Read More
Citrus
January 3, 2017
Soil Health Institute Launches Web-Based…
The tool allows users to connect soil health problems, management actions, and desired outcomes with research addressing a user’s particular situation. Read More
Citrus
January 3, 2017
Research Shows Limited Sign of Soil Adap…
Studies indicate that soils will typically respond strongly to increasing temperature by releasing more carbon dioxide. Read More
More Vegetables
November 30, 2016
Keys To Successful Bell Pepper Productio…
Proper water management and pruning strategies can help improve yields. Read More
Production
November 29, 2016
Great Lakes Ag-Tech Business Incubator L…
The incubator leverages one of the U.S.’s most productive agriculture regions to help develop and nurture ag-tech innovations. Read More
Fruits
November 28, 2016
Another Species Of Mite Threatens Honeyb…
Purdue researchers see a sister species of varroa mite developing ability to parasitize honeybees. Read More
Equipment
November 28, 2016
New Video Series To Enhance Safety And E…
Videos cover the science behind key topics and best practice recommendations, which include understanding droplet size and spectrum. Read More
Citrus
November 21, 2016
Bacterial Imbalances Can Be Troublesome …
A recent study reports that bees given fresh pollen or fresh supplements fared better than bees given pollen or supplements that had first been aged for 21 days. Read More
Citrus
November 20, 2016
Partnership Highlights Key Role Bees Pla…
Campaign focuses on role honeybees and beekeepers have pollinating the foods Americans eat. Read More
Equipment
November 14, 2016
New 4×4 Vehicle Offers Four-Passeng…
With increased room in vehicle, additional personnel can be transported to complete tasks on the farm. Read More
Production
November 7, 2016
Trimble Releases New Ag Software Platfor…
The software platform is designed to help growers and crop advisors simplify farm data management and increase productivity and profitability. Read More
Apples & Pears
November 2, 2016
Consider Alternatives To Finished Apple …
While tree availability has been a challenge, you may find other options give you a similar result. Read More
Production
November 1, 2016
Vertical Farming Innovator Urban Crops O…
The Belgium-based company produces tailored growth infrastructures that are turnkey, automated, robotized, and able to be integrated into existing production facilities. Read More
Equipment
October 25, 2016
Agricultural Mechanization: One Theme Of…
The show to be held in Italy will highlight some of the latest spraying, irrigation, and harvesting equipment. Read More