Labor Issues in Sweet Potatoes
May 2, 2017
Sweet Potato Season Under Way: Labor Issues Are Big Concern
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
With the 2017 sweet potato season getting under way, there are major concerns about the cost of labor - in particular, the new overtime law.
“It is a high-labor crop, which makes it a very expensive crop to farm. It use to be that fumigation challenges were the biggest concern, but now it’s the overtime law,” said Scott Stoddard, a Merced County vegetable crops farm advisor with UC Cooperative Extension.
“Before the new law, workers often put in a 10-hour day during harvest. So I think in order for growers to survive, they will be forced to change the harvest methods. We have to figure out how to make the harvest less expensive,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard has had a conversation with growers about figuring out a way to increase harvest efficiency.
"Again, the expensive part of the operation is the fact that harvesting is a very slow operation,” Stoddard explained. “You're going to have a tractor and a driver, and you're going to have five or six people on this piece of equipment. And in a 10-hour day, this harvester might do one acre of ground."
Right there alone, there are six employees that are making at or more than minimum wage: $12 to $15 an hour. After workman's comp and social security are factored in, farmers are looking at six people at $12 an hour or combined $72 dollars an hour. Multiply that by 8 hours - that's $576 dollars - and that's only for the labor.
“And if you have to go overtime, which is needed at harvest, then labor cost rise very steeply,” Stoddard said.
Then you have to throw in everything else: the equipment costs, diesel and maintenance. And you also have the driver of the harvester. And then you have the forklifts out in the field and the portable bathroom rentals. All of a sudden, costs are up around $1,500 an acre just for harvest.
We have to ask, is it really profitable to grow sweet potatoes?
“They continue to do it, so it must be," Stoddard said. "However, the changes in both the overtime law as well as the increase in the minimum wage are increasing the labor by 50 percent. So that means growers will need to increase their efficiency an additional 50 percent. And that’s what the industry is working on.”