Tom Nunes, V: The Best Labor Solutions Are When Everyone Wins

Tom Nunes, V, walks the fields at Nunes Vegetables, Inc.

Even for Nunes Vegetables, Inc., a large outfit with acreage in California, Nevada, and Arizona, competition is fierce for farmworkers who understand how to harvest, to lay irrigation, and to operate a farm.

Although the minimum wage rules have grabbed headlines, Tom Nunes, V, the Vice President of Operations for the Nunes Company (which sells under the Foxy Produce brand), says the current $10.50 minimum wage is a non issue for him. Nunes (called Tom 5 or T5 on the farm to distinguish him from his father, grandfather, and great uncle), says it is not unheard of workers making close to $20 per hour to attract the best workers.

In June, the LA Times ran a series of in-depth articles about the reality of growers trying to find good labor. One of the articles opened with a vineyard manager trying to recruit workers from wherever he could find them, including homeless shelters. He was offering $14.50 per hour, and yet was still struggling to find any takers.

The article describes how the manager is competing with Napa County vineyards, which can offer $20 per hour, because their grapes sell for much more per ton. Specialty crops like vegetables were the wallflowers of operations trying to catch the eye of talented workers.

Nunes scoffed at that assessment. “I don’t know if that is true. There’s a lot of people who are making $15 to $20 per hour for harvest,” he says.

That said, Nunes admits no one is immune to labor shortages. Western Growers and United Fresh Produce Association both report that the 2017 farm labor force will be 20% short of what’s needed. That’s 20% of a workforce that has been shrinking for two decades.

But Nunes, whose outlook blends pragmatism and optimism, refuses to be cowed by these accounts.

A rendering of what Casa Boronda will look like.

Good Housing Can Attract Labor Long into the Future

One way Nunes Vegetables is countering the shortage is through housing. To attract more workers to the Salinas area, the Nunes management team determined that it needs more housing. That meant a pretty significant building plan.

Called the Casa Boronda project, the new housing location will offer 75 units, with 600 beds, on 4 acres, and will be ready for residents in 2018. It includes recreation areas, both indoors and out.

The team approached this project wisely. They reached out to all the various county and city boards and officials who would be involved before getting started, seeking input on regulations and requirements they would need to follow.

There’s no escaping regulations, Nunes says, especially in California. So it’s best to recognize that reality and work within the system from the beginning.

“The regulatory side is the regulatory side,” he says with a shrug in his voice.

The councils Nunes Vegetables sought guidance from understand the need for labor in their community. It’s farming country, and the officials know the town and county’s fortunes will rise and fall with the health of local operations like Nunes Vegetables.

As a result of respecting these regulatory and zoning authorities and seeking input before breaking ground, the project is moving forward relatively smoothly.

Casa Boronda is designed for Nunes Vegetables-affiliated workers alone. But other growers, working collaboratively with each other and their local boards, can build similar housing projects.

“Trying to find, develop, and build affordable housing is expensive. The supply is short. Many of us in the industry are trying to bring in [housing] so it’s easier to attract good workers,” Nunes says.

Other companies in the Salinas, CA, area are looking at similar projects to increase the community’s overall appeal to ag workers.

“Our family businesses are generational. Many are committed to our valley and our community. And you need to do what you need to do,” Nunes says.

It remains to be determined whether workers will need to pay rent. If there is rent, however, it will be minimal. After all, the purpose of Casa Boronda is to attract workers.

One factor that may play into the decision is if Nunes Vegetables offers some of the housing units to its H-2A workers. If they do go that route, then the units will be rent-free for all, to stay in compliance of the work program’s rules.

Precision Ag Technology Vital to Future Labor Stability

Harvest is probably the most costly aspect of labor, Nunes says. But technology is offering a way forward.

“Technology that is coming into our industry will make it so we don’t need as many people, and will make their job functions easier, and will make them more productive,” he says.

That promise is still mostly promise, he admits, but it is definitely progressing.

“It’s two steps forward, four steps back, three steps forward, two back sometimes, but it’s happening,” Nunes says.

The price tag involved with improved harvest equipment, thinners, and other technology can be steep, and unaffordable to many growers. That’s where collaboration with other growers becomes key, Nunes says.

“It’s not always easy for individual firms to have the reserves to invest in R&D, so working together is very important in trying to move our industry forward,” he says.

He’s a big fan of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, which brings together growers and agricultural technology companies to develop tools that fill real-world needs for vegetable producers.

It’s a process, Nunes says, that needs growers to combine their resources to advance. And that’s something the industry does well.

“It’s been well documented over the years that we work together in times of need. One of the wonderful things to see is that a lot of the [companies] Nunes competes against in the same commodities are family-run and committed to our industry and the environment and work together collaboratively to try to move our industry along,” he says.

Nunes believes vegetable growers are in the midst of a time that calls for growers to combine forces and make some of the changes that will improve everyone’s lot.

“These are big, daunting tasks,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with great families. We compete every day for the same consumer, but there are a lot of really good people who do the right thing, and want to see this industry [succeed],” he says.

That positive spirit makes sense, he reasons. After all, “We really deal with the greatest items in the world: healthy fruits and vegetables. We all treat our employees as extended family, and we will work together to move our industry forward.”

Nunes Vegetables, Inc. at a Glance

  • Owners: The Nunes Family
  • Location: California, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico
  • Size: More than 22,000 crop acres
  • Labor: Various (domestic and H-2A)
  • Crops Grown: 40 different conventional crops and 35 different organic crops, including lettuce(s), celery, broccoli, and cauliflower
  • Other Specialties: Certified organic, growing operations
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