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 conditions—great weather, increased precipitation and a great bloom—other 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.”
“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 percent—to 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.”