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

ProductionNational Vegetable Grafting Symposium To Take Place Jan. 8 In Georgia
December 17, 2014
The third grafting symposium, Growing New Roots for the Vegetable Industry in the U.S., will be held at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center in Savannah, GA. Read More
CitrusSouth Florida Takes Plunge With Major Expansion Of Water Storage Program
December 15, 2014
New ag land partnerships, including a $124 million deal with Alico, more than double the current holding capacity. Read More
IrrigationNew Interactive Website Provides Visual Coverage Of Drought
December 10, 2014
The site, developed by the U.S. Geological Survey provides maps and plots of reservoir storage, and other information on water resources in California. Read More
Crop ProtectionSustainability’s Unintended Consequences [Opinion]
December 5, 2014
The good and bad of Whole Foods’ “Responsibly Grown” initiative. Read More
FruitsA Combination Of Culprits Are Related To The Decline In Bee Populations
December 3, 2014
The latest research into Colony Collapse Disorder is focused on a number of issues facing bee populations. Read More
FruitsWet December Predicted For Parched California
November 25, 2014
National Weather Service says above-normal precipitation expected; it may continue through the winter in central and southern parts of the Golden State. Read More
EquipmentHighlights From EIMA International In Italy [Slideshow]
November 19, 2014
The 2014 edition of the International Agricultural and Gardening Machinery Exhibition (EIMA) boasted a record number of attendees from 124 countries. Read More

The Latest

CitrusAce Pump Adds Two New Stainless Models To Its 650 Max S…
December 22, 2014
The equipment is designed to provide long-lasting performance. Read More
ProductionNational Vegetable Grafting Symposium To Take Place Jan…
December 17, 2014
The third grafting symposium, Growing New Roots for the Vegetable Industry in the U.S., will be held at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center in Savannah, GA. Read More
CitrusSouth Florida Takes Plunge With Major Expansion Of Wate…
December 15, 2014
New ag land partnerships, including a $124 million deal with Alico, more than double the current holding capacity. Read More
IrrigationNew Interactive Website Provides Visual Coverage Of Dro…
December 10, 2014
The site, developed by the U.S. Geological Survey provides maps and plots of reservoir storage, and other information on water resources in California. Read More
Crop ProtectionSustainability’s Unintended Consequences [Opinion]
December 5, 2014
The good and bad of Whole Foods’ “Responsibly Grown” initiative. Read More
FruitsA Combination Of Culprits Are Related To The Decline I…
December 3, 2014
The latest research into Colony Collapse Disorder is focused on a number of issues facing bee populations. Read More
EquipmentHighlights From EIMA International In Italy [Slideshow]
November 19, 2014
The 2014 edition of the International Agricultural and Gardening Machinery Exhibition (EIMA) boasted a record number of attendees from 124 countries. Read More
IrrigationAlmond Grower Honored For Water Efficiency
November 18, 2014
Ongoing drought highlights the efforts of third-generation Madera County grower Tom Rogers. Read More
FruitsColorado, Oregon Voters Say No To Labeling GMOs
November 6, 2014
Voters echo past results of California and Washington elections. Read More
NutsPistachio Production Short Course Slated
November 5, 2014
Sessions are based on accepted science and designed for orchard decision makers. Read More
ProductionEnvision A Sustainable Future
November 4, 2014
Find out what you need to do to increase your sustainability efforts and produce vegetables for years to come. Read More
ProductionTactics To Maximize Available Water
November 4, 2014
Follow these 10 tips to help you get the most from your irrigation water. Read More
ProductionDrought Forcing California Growers To Rely On Groundwat…
October 31, 2014
While the state issues curtailments to those with junior rights, growers are increasingly relying on groundwater to irrigate their crop. Read More
PotatoesNew CEO At Black Gold Farms, A Top 100 Grower
October 28, 2014
Eric Halverson takes the reins at the potato operation, while his father Gregg will remain president of the farm’s board of directors. Read More
CitrusEPA Launches Program To Reduce Pesticide Drift
October 22, 2014
The voluntary star-rating program aims to protect people, wildlife and the environment. Read More
CitrusAgriculture, Interior Departments Partner To Measure Co…
October 22, 2014
Goal is to provide science-based information for watershed wellness. Read More
FruitsCalifornia Department Of Food And Agriculture Awards $3…
October 21, 2014
State Water Efficiency And Enhancement Program highlights projects implement irrigation systems that reduce water and energy use. Read More
CitrusNew Jersey Green Industry Council Will Host Pollinator …
October 8, 2014
The New Jersey Green Industry Council’s 2014 Pollinator Summit is an event and issue briefing for everyone who works in Read More