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
Action shot of an automated strawberry picker from Harvest CROO
October 17, 2016
Ag-Tech Tools Are Beyond Cool, They’re A Necessity
This kind of innovation is not just about labor-saving convenience, it could save an industry without having to completely alter the way a crop is grown. Read More
NatureFresh has been shipping ‘OhioRed’ tomato on the vine (TOV) from Delta since February and will begin shipping an extensive array of specialty tomatoes from Ohio starting in mid-November.
Protected Agriculture
October 12, 2016
NatureFresh Farms Launches OhioRed Tomato Program
The greenhouse operation also was named a PMA Impact Award Finalist. Read More
Food Origin’s technology involves collecting data from field workers 
harvesting products and using that information for payroll, food safety, etc.  Photo courtesy of Nathan Dorn
October 12, 2016
Precision Ag Technology Moves Forward For Vegetable Growers
Startups at Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology focus on tools to contribute to your business. Read More
Photo credit: USDA
October 11, 2016
$21.4 Million In Grants For Organic Research, Extension
Projects funded to help improve business operations and transition to organic production. Read More
Rita Abi-Ghanem, Ph.D., Senior Director of Research & Development at Bio Huma Netics, Inc
Crop Protection
October 6, 2016
EPA’s Agricultural Science Committee Appoints R&D Director Of Bio Huma Netics To Two-Year Term
Rita Abi-Ghanem of Bio Huma Netics, a supplier of agricultural liquid fertilizers and specialty products, will serve on the committee’s Science Advisory Board. Read More
Part of a sustainable cropping system includes desiging fields to wrap around hilly terrain to limit runoff and soil erosion.  Photo credit: Rosemary Gordon
October 5, 2016
Cover Crops: An Effective Weed Control For Organic Vegetable Production
Successfully suppress troublesome, unwanted plants with the help of cover crops. Read More
Entrance sign to Mosaic's New Wales Plant in Central Florida
October 4, 2016
Minding Mosaic: Trust Is A Precious Commodity
We as an industry need to figure out ways to be engaged, to keep the discussions productive, and the solutions science-based. Read More
The Latest
October 12, 2016
Precision Ag Technology Moves Forward Fo…
Startups at Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology focus on tools to contribute to your business. Read More
Leafy Vegetables
October 3, 2016
Options In Lettuce Thinning
The words “precision agriculture” can mean different things to different people. For those producing row crops, it typically has to Read More
October 2, 2016
Tips For Growers To Manage Top Organic P…
A strong IPM program that combines strategies to build healthy soil is the best line of defense for vegetable growers. Read More
September 28, 2016
Small Tractor Sales On The Rebound
Retail sales of tractors under 40 horsepower gained more than 21% last month, while sales of larger tractors continued their double-digit declines. Read More
September 27, 2016
Rodale Institute Launches An Organic Far…
A new national organization for organic growers is designed to provide advocacy, the latest research and education, and information-sharing among farmers. Read More
September 22, 2016
It Behooves Blueberry Growers To Protect…
Placing priority on bee care best practices will ensure sweet success for your crop. Read More
September 16, 2016
The Definition Of Precision Ag
As the world’s population has been projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, we will need to use the latest technology to to feed the world. Read More
September 16, 2016
U.S. Farm Productivity Approaching Peril…
Investments in research and Extension required to stay ahead of the competition. Read More
September 11, 2016
Organic Seed Alliance Names New Executiv…
New leader has a background in nonprofit development, environmental education. Read More
September 7, 2016
Getting To The Root Of Improved Fruit An…
Taking a holistic approach to soil health is a key to increasing plant vigor and yields. High yields begin with Read More
September 6, 2016
NatureFresh Farms Hits A New Level For …
The company's Ohio-grown greenhouse tomatoes hit the marketplace as phase two and three of a state-of-the-art facility are being completed. Read More
September 6, 2016
Trimble Announces Seamless Farm Data Int…
This initiative will ensure accurate records and eliminate duplicate data entry.   Read More
September 6, 2016
Red Sun Farms Becomes Part Of The ‘Ohio …
After breaking ground on a second greenhouse in the spring, Red Sun plans to start the hiring process this fall and plant the first crop in early 2017. Read More
September 5, 2016
Pump And Fertilize: How To Factor Irriga…
Water quality regulations in many regions of California now require farmers to report the amount of nitrogen fertilizer they apply to their fields and the nitrate concentration of their irrigation water. Read More
August 31, 2016
Ag Robots And Drones May Be A $10 Billio…
A new report analyzes how the robotic market and technology developments will change the business of agriculture. Read More
August 30, 2016
Western Growers Opens AgTech Innovation …
Startup companies can apply to compete for ag industry resources. Read More
August 6, 2016
Save The Pollinators [Opinion]
Bees need to be protected as these beneficial, pollinating insects have an important job: They help increase yields of both fruits and vegetables. Read More
August 2, 2016
SARE Grant Expands Tomato Research In Hi…
Researchers in New Hampshire receive grant to expand research for tomato nutrient and pest management in high tunnels. Read More
[gravityform id="62" title="false" description="false"]