Farmworker shortage raises worries grapes will go unpicked

·4 min read

Sep. 5—The signs first appeared last fall when Central Valley table grape growers couldn't find enough workers to prune their vines. Now, a month into the harvest, it's become clear California doesn't have enough farmworkers for the harvest.

Work crew sizes are reportedly down a quarter to 40 percent amid what may be the first year-round labor shortage in decades. People familiar with the situation rank the lack of workers as the industry's biggest challenge, ahead of even the drought.

During the recent shortage of workers across many industries, the lack of qualified grape workers is unique. Growers' costs are up across the board, including from the state's regulatory shortening of the number of hours farmworkers put in per week before overtime kicks in, from 60 to 45 (later, the trigger will become 40 hours).

'JUST A REALITY'

This year's crop is by all accounts high in quality, about as abundant as last year's and enjoying historically average prices. But some of it's probably going to rot on the vine because there aren't enough people available to pick it all.

"The (worker) shortage is real this year, so growers will make a decision to harvest their most profitable varieties," said Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association trade group. "Ultimately you might see some fruit left in the orchard. That's just a reality."

As the problem has worsened over the course of many years, growers have invested in mechanical innovations gradually making the harvest more efficient. Recently, some are bringing in guest workers from other countries to do the job. Meanwhile the industry continues to push for immigration reform that could soon see action in the U.S. Senate after passing the House.

Arvin-area table grape grower Rick Deckard said it's been hard during the harvest keeping workers on the site, especially when it's "really, super hot." This year for the first time he decided to hire a labor contractor instead of employing workers directly. He said that has saved his human resources-related costs by a few percentage points.

His water supply is holding up and the product looks good despite heat stress in July that took out 20 percent of his production, he said. Prices this season started high, settled down as usual and might pick up again in October, he said.

STUCK AWHILE

Deckard said he's thinking of sticking with a labor contractor, as many valley growers do.

"I'm thinking we're probably going to be stuck in this (shortage) thing for a while," he said.

Grapes are one of California's most labor-intensive crops. They are also Kern County's second highest-grossing crop, according to the most recent data available.

A July report from RaboResearch pointed to positive developments in the table grape industry, from expanding global demand to opportunities for product differentiation through high-quality varieties.

The report also focused on challenges such as rising international competition and, above all for California growers, a lack of labor and water.

RaboResearch reported those two cost challenges have distinguished what is otherwise a typical year. It noted as well the labor issue belongs not only to California.

INTERNATIONAL ISSUE

Chile, a major exporter that suffered a difficult 2020, faces a labor shortage RaboResearch pegged at 49 percent and attributed to COVID-19 contagion, lack of child care and lack of immigration. It said Peru now requires table grape producers pay 30 percent more than the country's minimum wage, while Mexico's minimum has increased 60 percent in four years.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, has watched the shortage play out since last year's pruning challenges. It was followed by trouble getting all the plantings done in spring, he said, and now it's a problem again as the harvest coincides with labor demand strong in other fruit, vegetables, dairy and poultry.

Quarantines have been part of the issue, he said. Although some farmers assert workers are staying at home and collecting government benefits, Cunha said he doubts that's common among farmworkers, many of them undocumented immigrants, because applying for assistance requires a valid Social Security number.

He said the solution is not bringing in more guest workers, who he said are of limited help because they are only allowed to stay for relatively short periods. Instead, Nissei advocates giving experienced, longtime grape workers a chance at permanent residency through farmworker immigration legislation pending before the Senate.

"If they don't get this thing fixed, we're going to lose more workers," he said.

LEGISLATIVE EFFORT

LeMay at the fruit association noted there's a chance the Senate will make progress before long on the farmworker immigration bill. The trade group also supports a bill it considers a related issue that would give residency to immigrants brought to the country as children.

"We need to improve our ability to bring a new workforce into the United States," he said, "but we also need to identify ways to establish a legal reconciliation of some of those individuals working in the United States currently in agriculture."

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