Financial Downfalls Change Harvest Methods

What a difference a couple of years can make. Two years ago, American Vegetable Grower contacted Imperial Valley, CA, grower Jon Vessey for an interview. The magazine was marking its 100th anniversary that year, and as part of the commemoration, longtime growing families, “Produce Pioneers,” from around the country were spotlighted. Vessey and Company, which has been growing vegetables in the desert since 1923, is certainly a pioneer in this key production area, which supplies a lot of the nation with vegetables in the winter.

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After relating his family’s history, Vessey began talking about what he was faced with that January day: A huge field — 900 acres — of cabbage that was ready for picking, but he had no one to harvest it. Many of the mostly Hispanic laborers of past years had either gone to work in the booming construction industry or been scared off for fear of deportation.

“In 2007, enforcement started,” says Vessey. “There was an exodus of undocumented workers because of enforcement in the desert.”

Vessey, who has about 7,000 acres of vegetables, was frustrated because he already had a contract for the 900 acres of cabbage in a $10-a-box market. ($7 is break-even.) He said at the time that would be the last time he would hand-harvest cabbage. “We’ll harvest it next year because we’ll harvest it mechanically,” he said two years ago. “We have to.”

As it turned out, they did harvest the field the following year, but not mechanically. They didn’t have to go with a mechanical harvester for a whole host of reasons. In a recent eMail and follow-up conversation, Vessey detailed the reasons on holding off on going to mechanical harvesting.

Workers Return

As mentioned above, in 2007 many of the laborers who had harvested for Vessey in the past had fled because of fears of deportation or had been lured away by higher paying jobs in construction. “They went up north and stayed,” says Vessey. “They simply didn’t come back like in previous years.”
But as the building boom began to slow in California, construction workers were laid off and many returned to work in agriculture. Last year Vessey had the 50 or so laborers he needed to pick that 900-acre field. “Those guys were hammering nails back in 2007,” he says.

Equipment Cost

A cabbage harvester would set him back about $300,000 to $400,000, says Vessey, and that’s too high a cost for a grower such as himself who farms only in the winter months. That’s fine for the bigger growers who farm year-around, moving between the desert in the winter and Salinas and the Huron area the rest of the year.

“If I farmed for 12 months a year, I’d be more inclined,” he says. “For me to go mechanical, I would have to buy it with someone who grows in the north so we could spread the costs out.”

Food Service Off

While the economic downturn has helped Vessey in sourcing labor, it has hurt his food service business. A lot of the cabbage he grows is turned into such menu items as cole slaw. With many people having less disposable income, they are eating out less, and the restaurant business has taken a hit.

“The food service guys are really going through some tough times right now,” he says. “Their volume is way down compared to the retail business. The restaurants are the ones that are struggling.”

The Time Will Come

However, just because Vessey has not gone with mechanical harvesting doesn’t mean he won’t do so in the future. In fact, he thinks that might be a foregone conclusion. For one thing, he’s well aware of the cyclical nature of the economy. Labor shortages loom at some point in the future. “Unfortunately, we have short memories,” he says. “We kind of get complacent because of the economy.”

In addition, he’s noticed that his workforce is aging. With the rising rates of medical care and insurance, Vessey says his costs in those areas are going to climb. “I think it’s something we need to be concerned about,” he says.

In an ironic twist, the economic downturn has given Vessey something of a breather. But that’s all it is. “Just like GM, we have to figure out how to make do with fewer employees,” he says. “We are looking to mechanize some of the operation.”