Blueberry Farmers Face Pivotal Juncture

Blueberry Farmers Grapple with Harvest Complexities

By Laurie Greene, Editor

It is peak season for blueberries in California, which provides nine percent of America’s blueberries according to the California Agricultural Statistics Review 2013-2014. And though this year’s harvest is a healthy, robust crop due to “fantastic” growing conditionsgreat weather, increased precipitation and a great bloomother factors, according to Alexander Ott, executive director of the California Blueberry Commission, have complicated the process. Farmers have reached a pivotal juncture to adapt with all the variables.

Despite the exceptional quality of this year’s harvest—an estimated 70M-pound blueberry supply in California—and good movement in the produce marketplace, Ott explained blueberry farmers are facing a scarce, expensive labor force and a drop in market price. “Harvesting and labor is different for every blueberry grower because they may grow different blueberry varieties, prepare them for market as fresh or processed, have differ farm labor contracts or hire directly. And this year, harvest arrived two weeks early.”CA Blueberry Commission

“If we don’t have the labor, we don’t have a crop,” acknowledged Ott. “This is not unskilled labor, either; it is difficult to educate farmworkers, do research and other necessary things farmers must do to conduct a sustainable operation. Folks must know how to prune; how to identify ripe berries among fruit that ripens unevenly, how to pick without bruising the berries, and how to maintain stringent food safety measures.

“These farmworkers are hard working,” said Ott, “and generally make good money,” which Ott defined as $22 per hour. The lowest wage he is aware is $13/hour. And with the recent increase in California’s minimum wage, Ott reported that labor costs account for 52-54% costs of blueberry production.

Furthermore, Klein Management blueberry workers who struck for three days last week overwhelmingly voted—by 82 percentto be represented by the United Farm Workers (UFW) during a union representation election last Saturday, May 21, overseen by the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Throw in the lack of national comprehensive guest worker reform to allow skilled farmworkers to come in, work, and then go home; our economy as a whole; labor lost from drought and fallowed fields; mandated food safety requirements (particularly compared to other countries); new surface water and groundwater regulations; invasive pests and plant diseases; international commodity and trade factors; shipping and transportation complexities; and the fact that “the wheels of government move at slow pace” to adapt, as Ott views it, and the small grower disappears.

Ott sees two options for California blueberry farmers: Hire the same block of labor to conduct the six or seven picks per field of fruit or become innovative, particularly in the use of technology. With the introduction of the blueberry harvester several years ago, increased industrialization has afforded farmers the ability to dismiss worries about wage hikes and labor shortages, protection against heat stress, break periods, and overtime.

The question is, according to Ott, “How fast will the industry move toward technology?” Ott is following the issue with great interest, “As farmers go mechanical, there are more questions than answers.”

Apple Commission Joins Listeria Outbreak Investigation in Caramel Apples

California Victim Represents the First Wrongful Death Suit in this Listeria Outbreak

 

By Laurie Greene, CalAgToday reporter and editor

On December 19, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that it is collaborating with several states and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in an investigation of the outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infection (listeriosis) in commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples.
The first wrongful death lawsuit was filed in California by James Raymond Frey on behalf of his late wife, Shirlee Jean Frey, 81, against Safeway Inc. over the commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples, implicated in a 10-state Listeria outbreak responsible for a total of 29 people (as of yesterday) who have been hospitalized, including five deaths.
Though the product in question was linked to Carnival brand and Kitchen Cravings brand caramel apples, specifically, CDC is warning the public not to eat caramel apples–plain or with nuts or other toppings, but clarified, “at this time, no illnesses related to this outbreak have been linked to apples that are not caramel-coated and not prepackaged or to caramel candy.” Safeway removed the product from it shelves.
The investigation is still working to determine specific brands or types of commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples that may be linked to the illnesses.
Listeria is one of the more deadly food pathogens. The most recent Listeria outbreak occurred three years ago from Colorado-grown contaminated cantaloupes, causing three dozen deaths. The pathogen  affects primarily women, newborns, older adults and other people with compromised immune systems. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches and gastrointestinal problems.
The California Apple Commission is working with other apple producing states and the U.S. Apple Association on this issue.  Should California apple growers receive any calls regarding this issue or need additional information, please contact Alexander Ott, Executive Director the Commission office in Fresno by email at calapple@calapple.org or phone 1-559-225-3000.
Photo source: CDC