Labor Challenges in Sweet Potatoes

Challenges Are High Demand for Innovation

By Mikenzi Meyers Associate Editor

Harvest for sweet potatoes is in full swing, which means long hours and high labor expenses for producers. Scott Stoddard, of the UC Cooperative Extension in Merced County, knows the difficult task at hand in managing time and money.

With new overtime laws in place, the extended work days during harvest can be costly to farmers. With insight into several operations, Stoddard explained, “Everybody is crunched and trying to get as much as they possibly can get done in a day.”

However, this isn’t the only issue farmers are facing, because although hourly pay is on the rise, labor is becoming more difficult to find.

Stoddard said, “I had a guy tell me last week when I was harvesting sweet potatoes that it is getting a little bit harder to find labor.”

All of these factors, he concluded, are driving forces for mechanical innovation.

Innovation and new pieces of equipment are continuing to “shake up” the industry, Stoddard noted. In a typical operation, it takes two passes in sweet potato fields to eliminate excess vines leading up to harvest. Stoddard said that the new machine is capable of removing vines pre-harvest in just one pass.

“It helps get rid of the extra little vines that are still left over after you flail mow the crop,” he explained.

Although this machine is costly, according to Stoddard, it is estimated to save about one person per harvester, which in the big picture can add up.

“It’s a little tweaking of the system, which will make sweet potato harvest more labor efficient.”

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H2-A is Only Legal Solution For Labor Without Immigration Reform

H2-A is Heart of One Farm Labor Contractor

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor

H2-A employees are the heart of one major farm labor company. Steve Scaroni owns Fresh Harvest, a premier labor provider and staffing and harvesting company to the agricultural industry and the western United States. But the company’s main emphasis has always harvested crops related to salads; they have also expanded into permanent crops.

“Last year, we started citrus and pears, and we will continue to expand in vegetables with anything that goes into a salad, lots of head lettuce, romaine, and broccoli, which is what we have been doing for a long time,” Scaroni said.

And then we touch a lot of salads every day. The H2-A temporary agricultural program allows agricultural employers when anticipating a shortage in domestic workers to bring non-migrant foreign workers to the US to perform agricultural services for a temporary or seasonal nature.

Steve Scaroni

“If it wasn’t for H2-A, I wouldn’t be in business. I mean that’s the only way to get a legal worker into California to serve my customers demands for the services we offer, which is mostly labor and harvesting,” Scaroni said.

“And we’re even starting to do a lot of farm services. We’re bringing up 100 irrigators this year to put throughout the Salinas Valley because our Salinas customers can’t get enough irrigators,” he said.

Being a labor contractor has its difficulties. It takes a lot of work. It’s a very bureaucratic process-driven application process.

“Laborers that show great work ethic will be able to work for a longer period of time. A worker could technically stay if I can move it from contract to contract, and I can keep the temporary employee for three years,” Scaroni said. “But then he has to go back for 90 days, but it’s very hard to time the contracts for that to work.”

“So most guys, they’ll do five, six, seven months. They’ll go home before they can come back. And then the guys that are really good workers with and a great attitude and really get it done for us. We’ll move to another contract. Will even retrain them in a different crop if they have the right attitude and work ethic,” he said.

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Mexico trade mission and Ag labor issues – Looking Forward

Source: Karen Ross, California Agriculture Secretary

While in Mexico City last week, Governor Brown met with Secretary Navarrete Prida of the Mexican Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and signed a letter of intent to address labor rights issues for temporary Mexican workers in California – a matter of high importance, of course, for California’s farmers and ranchers.

Moving forward from that promising development, we are working to create a pilot program than connects at least one California agricultural employer with Mexican officials to establish a set of protocols. Our objective is to help curb migrant worker abuse on a national and international basis, and provide stronger assurances to California agricultural employers that migrant labor employed within a H-2A program are not subject to illegal fees, misrepresentation of employment terms, fraud and other issues.

California, the U.S. Department of Labor, and a network of cross border nongovernmental organizations would work with Mexico to establish a bi-nationally available register of certified labor recruitment agencies. In addition, Mexico would develop a system for monitoring, verifying and supervising the activities carried out by recruitment agencies.

In California, the state would identify agricultural employers that voluntarily commit to using certified recruiters.

In the absence of a national immigration solution, this pilot program can be a great benefit to California’s agricultural community and strengthen our bilateral ties with Mexico.

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