Having enough labor to plant, manage, and harvest crops has been an issue facing agriculture for years. With no clear or straightforward solution in sight, some growers have had to leave crops in the field or drastically reduce acreage as a result of the shortages.
The drought in California has placed additional stress on growers who were already feeling the labor pains — so to speak — and according to Manuel Cunha, President of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, CA, the result has been a reduction of approximately 30% to 40% of the needed workforce.
Charles Hall, Director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association, says the biggest challenge growers faced recently was the lack of H-2A workers coming in because of processing issues in the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).
Both Cunha and Hall were asked to zero in on the current labor situation and provide what their prognosis is moving forward.
Bottlenecks At The Border
Hall says as a result of the DOL processing delays, a number of growers didn’t get their early crop. For some growers, workers arrived between two to four weeks late, and he attributes the slowdown to an insufficient number of DOL workers.
“If we’re bringing in two to three times more workers than we were five years ago, then we need two to three times more workers at the Department of Labor processing them. Each year, it seems to take longer to get labor moved in,” he continues.
To help solve the problem, many growers are facing the question of whether to call for earlier contracts to provide a cushion for potential delays. The problem with this, Hall explains, is growers would need to know the exact date the crop came in to avoid paying idle workers.
Hall notes that American Farm Bureau Federation President Vincent “Zippy” Duvall is well aware of the delays at the DOL, and has urged the agency to start using email instead of depending on snail mail, a process Hall says has seriously affected the amount of time required to process important information.
Another possibility Hall mentions is speeding up the interview process at the border, which to date has been cumbersome. The current framework requires each worker be interviewed before entering the country, despite the fact that many of them have been returning to the U.S. from anywhere up to seven years in a row, often at the same farm.
“In our view, there could be a process where if they’ve been vetted by Homeland Security within the last two years, they don’t have to go through that process again. This would certainly speed things up at the border.”
Drought And Wage Troubles
Growers in California have been faced with the perfect storm of elements leading to a significant reduction in labor. With the drought and fluctuations in wages, Cunha says many workers in the Golden State are moving elsewhere where work is guaranteed.
Based on reports Cunha received in February, labor contractors’ crew sizes this year have ranged from approximately nine to 20 people whereas the normal number of workers per crew is 25. As a result, contractors, growers, and packers have had to combine crews in order to have enough workers.
He says the availability of labor will vary across the board, and that’s because acreage has been reduced due to the drought in some areas — specifically vegetable crops in the San Joaquin Valley — day-to-day harvests are not guaranteed. Because of this, Cunha predicts growers will leave these areas and go where they know they’ll have more stability.
“The San Joaquin Valley experienced a huge reduction of vegetable crops including lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and broccoli because of the [lack of] water; they needed to put it toward their permanent crops,” he explains.
“When you pick vegetables, take cucumbers for example — based on the temperatures, they can grow really fast,” he says. “The temperatures in late May and early June were low, so growth had been significantly slower.”
Further complicating matters, Cunha says in September 2015, California enacted AB 1513, or Piece Rate Legislation, which now requires the payment of a separate hourly wage for rest and recovery periods and for “other nonproductive time” worked by piece-rate employees.
Cunha believes this new development is largely unfriendly to the agricultural workforce and may push some growers to leave California and find work in other states.
“Growers and contractors are hiring personnel just to do a special timesheet, and it’s not efficient. Workers want incentive pay. They work hard and this new law takes away incentive for [employees] to work harder,” he explains.