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.

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