2019 Strawberry Harvest is Brisk

Labor Tight, But Incentive Programs Keep Berries Harvested

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor

The 2019 strawberry harvest is going strong, and field employees are busy picking at the height the ripeness. Carolyn O’Donnell, a communication director for the California Strawberry Commission based in Watsonville, said lots of hands are harvesting the berries.

Carolyn O'Donnell
Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director, California Strawberry Commission

“We need to harvest the berries when ready,” O’Donnell said. “We can’t leave the ripe berries on the plant a few extra days, and we can’t harvest them early and then ripen them in some other modified atmosphere. They have to be picked when they’re ready to go. So, timing is part of it, as well as just having an adequate supply.”

O’Donnell explained how growers are handling the tight labor supply.

“It’s been a challenge. The growers have been doing all kinds of different incentive programs. Definitely, wages have been raised, different benefits have been offered, but we do find that growers are still struggling to keep up with their harvest,” O’Donnell said.

And when those harvesters out there picking the strawberries, they want to make the money, and they are in fact running back and forth with their trays to refill them.

“We are definitely in a busy harvest season right now. And so with a quick harvest comes incentive pay. And harvest workers will be hustling a little bit more. There are lots of berries to pick. There is money to be made,” O’Donnell said.

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.”

Labor Contractor Fresh Harvest Deep in Vegetable Harvests

Fresh Harvest Relies on H-2A

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Steve Scaroni, along with his wife Brenda, owns Fresh Harvest, a premier labor provider, staffing and harvesting company for the agricultural industry in the western United States.

Steve Scaroni, with Fresh Harvest.

“Expansion for Fresh Harvest is coming, but the main emphasis is crops related to salads. They even expanded into citrus last year,” Scaroni said.

Fresh Harvest has also expanded into pears. Vegetables are the heart and soul of Fresh Harvest.

“Anything that goes into a salad, a lot of lettuce, romaine, broccoli; we touch a lot of salads every day,” he said.

The H-2A temporary agricultural program allows agricultural employers who expect a shortage in domestic workers to bring non-migrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural services for a temporary or seasonal nature.

“If it wasn’t for H-2A, I wouldn’t be in business,” Scaroni said.

Scaroni explained that the H-2A gets legal workers to serve his customers demands for the services he offers. A majority of the demands are labor and harvesting, along with other 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.

Laborers that show great work ethic will be able to work for a longer period of time. A worker could technically stay if moved from contract to contract.

“If the timing works, he gets up to three years, but then he has to go back for 90 days,” Scaroni said.

California Rice Grower Demystifies Rice Industry

California Rice Grower Feeds Minds Also

 

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

By now, growers have harvested much of northern California’s rice. Most of it is already in the rice mill. While prices were low this year, production has been very good, according to Matthew Sligar, a third-generation rice grower in Gridley, up in Butte County.

California Rice Grower
Matthew Sligar, “How Rice is Harvested.”

“Yes, we just got done with rice harvest. We are chopping the rice straw that is left in the fields. We’re disking it in to aid in decomposition,” Sligar said.

“Then we flood the fields with about 4 to 6 inches of water, creating a natural habitat for migratory birds. We just let the field sit over the winter so the straw decomposes. We work it back up in the spring.”

Northern California rice growers dedicate the winter months, and even the early season months when fields are first flooded, to help migratory birds whose original habitat has been taken over by cities and expanding neighborhoods.

Birds by the millions – including ducks, geese and shorebirds – rest, feed and rear their young in rice fields during their annual migrations. “Our fields turn white like snow from the down floating feathers left behind by birds,” Sligar said.

Matthew Sligar, California Rice Grower and Blogger
Matthew Sligar, California Rice Grower and Blogger

And yet, due to global oversupply, rice prices are trending lower this season. “We had to put our rice into a marketing pool because we wanted to guarantee a home for it,” Sligar said. “We did not want to gamble on the cash market. We haven’t seen the returns yet; however, I got a great yield, and I hear most of Northern California got extremely good yields.”

“Hopefully, that will make up for some of the low price, and we might make some money. When you get a good year, you’ve got to save that money for bad years like this year, just make it through to next year,” Sligar said.

Besides farming rice, Sligar is a cyclist and a social media blogger. He produces great videos on all segments of the rice industry.

“That’s one reason why I started Rice Farming TV because whenever I’d be at a restaurant or some spot socializing, someone will say, ‘What do you do?’ I tell them that I farm rice. ‘Rice? Where do you live?’ I say, ‘I live in California.’ They don’t know that rice is grown in California, but it’s the best,” Sligar said.

 

Click below to view Sligar’s video, “How Rice is Harvested!”


Also, in Sligar’s repertoire is the best way to surprise someone you love in the middle of a busy rice season, in The Mile High Surprise!

 View more videos at ricefarmingtv.com.

Governor Signs AB 1066 Overtime Bill for Farmworkers

Governor Signs AB 1066 With Good Intentions

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director and Laurie Greene, Editor

 

TODAY, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1066, the overtime bill for farmworkers, despite pushback from agricultural groups and farmworkers in the state. Ian LeMay, director of member relations & communications of the Fresno-based California Fresh Fruit Association, anticipates that not only will farmers in the state lose, but farmworkers, exports, and possibly consumers will lose as well. 

For years, California farm employees accrued overtime pay only after working a 10-hour day, instead of an 8-hour day, like most other employees in California. AB 1066 changes the overtime rules for farmworkers by gradually lowering overtime thresholds in steps over the next four years so farmworkers will eventually earn overtime after an 8-hour day.

The California farm industry has appreciated the prior overtime policy, according to LeMay, because agriculture is not a typical 52-week type of job. The workload of farming ebbs and flows with the seasons, weather, cultural practices and tasks.Farmworkers

For instance, harvesting of crops such as strawberries, citrus and table grapes, normally occurs during short 2- to 3-week periods in the state and is accompanied by an increase in demand for labor. As one might expect, the need for labor declines during non-harvest and non-planting phases, to the extent that farmworkers may endure periods of no work, and hence, no pay. So farmworkers have appreciated the opportunity to work extra hours and earn overtime during busier phases.

Labor costs for California growers of all fresh fruit, avocados and many vegetable crops will be most affected by this change. “This is going to have a very, very big impact on crops that require a high degree of labor like our stone fruit, table grapes and the rest,” said LeMay, “It’s definitely going to change the way our members have to approach doing business,” he said.

“When you compare it to the other states in the union that we are going to have to compete with,” LeMay elaborated, “when you take into account recent changes in minimum wage, piece-rate compensation, increasing farm regulations and now overtime, it’s going to be very difficult to compete not only in a domestic market, but also internationally. That’s the disappointing part about this.”

LeMay also explained that over the last 40 years, the California legislature has crafted labor law to create the highest worker standards in the U.S. “California was the only state in the union that had a daily threshold for overtime of [only] 10 hours per day, and we were one of four in the union that had a weekly threshold for overtime of [only] 60 hours. So in terms of ag overtime, California was already the gold standard.”

And, although lawmakers intended AB 1066 to help farmworkers, LeMay noted, “ultimately, the measure will impact farmworkers the most because farmers in the number one Ag state will find a way to keep its bottom line from eroding any further.

“California farmers will need to solve the puzzle of how to achieve the same amount of work in fewer hours per day,” said LeMay. “They will consider hiring double crews, increasing mechanization in packing facilities, orchards and vineyards, and reducing farm acreage to match their workforce. Or, for those commodities that require increased labor, you could see a transition to commodities like nut crops that use less labor.”

LeMay explained that during down periods on the farm, farmworkers generally collect unemployment, which is based on gross annual income. Now, by giving the farmer an incentive to reduce worker hours, farmworkers’ unemployment compensation may decrease as well.

Furthermore, for the consumer who desires fresh local food from small farms, the phase-in schedule AB 1066 provides to smaller companies is actually a competitive disadvantage. “While AB 1066 allows small farmers—those with fewer than 25 employeesmore time to phase in changes,” LeMay asked, “why would a farmworker stay at small farm under the prolonged 60-hour per week overtime threshold rule, when he or she could work at a larger farm under the phased-in 40-hour per week threshold?”

ab-1066-provisions

 

Are consumers willing to pay for increased labor costs on the farm? “As the saying goes,” LeMay quipped, “generally farmers aren’t price makers, they are price takers. Consumers are usually unwilling to pay extra for their produce, so farmers usually have to absorb increased costs.”

“Economically,” LeMay summarized, “the legislature has taken us from high labor standards to economically disadvantaging farmers and farmworkers. Lawmakers are not paying enough attention to keeping California companies viable, sustainable and successful.”

Will AB-1066 End Sunup to Sundown Farming?

Will Overtime Bill Kill Sunup to Sundown Way of Farming?

By Brian German, Associate Broadcaster

 

Newly approved by the California Assembly, AB-1066, which would effectively extend the payment of overtime compensation to agricultural employees after 8 hours of work in a day or 40 hours per week, instead of 10 hours per day or 50 to 60 hours per week, awaits Governor Jerry Brown‘s final decision this month. The theory behind the bill is understandable, but according to Bryan Van Groningen, field manager for Van Groningen & Sons, Inc.a California family farming business begun in 1922, agriculture works within a different timetable than other industries.

 

Because agricultural production is fundamentally nature-based, Van Groningen said there is an underlying need for non-traditional workdays. “Our crews, more or less, work from sunup to sundown,” he said. “That is what is required to get our harvest finished.”

 

Van Groningen & Sons employs different types of laborers, some who already work 8-hour days and others who work on a schedule that AB-1066 would  eliminate. “Our field workers—everybody is accustomed to a 10-hour per day and 50-hour per week system,” explained Van Groningen.

 

For Van Groningen & Sons, one of the largest producers of pumpkins for the West Coast, the period leading up to Halloween is naturally one of their busiest times of year. They have a short window of time to get their produce ready for its final destination, so putting an 8-hour limit on their employees would cause problems in meeting their deadline. “We have to get all of our crop in, harvested, transported, packed and shipped by a certain date. If we don’t,” he said, “the date comes and we’re pretty much finished.”

Van Groningen & Sons In Full Harvest Mode

Bryan Van Groningen, with Van Groningen & Sons, a farming operation in Manteca, in San Joaquin County says the operation  is in full harvest mode, rounding out what has been a good year.

“Right now we’re still in peak season of the watermelon harvest. We’re also getting geared up for the pumpkin season. We are going to be harvesting some of our ornamental gourds pretty soon, and that’s going to lead into our normal-sized pumpkins of all types of varieties. That’s going to get underway soon, probably in another week, and will continue all the way until the end of October. We are just completing our sweet corn harvest, and almond harvest has begun as well,” said Van Groningen.

Van Groningen thinks the drought has affected pricing this year. “I think the lack of water up and down the state has affected the pricing because it has been pretty strong. We haven’t had those valleys in some of the pricing throughout the season, but I think, further down south, guys are irrigating only their permanent crops and going into more of their higher-dollar crops. For crops like sweet corn, there are not a lot of acres growing in California, and that has kept the price high,” said Van Groningen.

The farm’s water supply was sufficient this year, but Van Groningen is guarded about the future. “We’re fortunate in our areas because we are irrigating most of our land with a deep well, and we don’t have to rely on district water so much, so we are kind of lucky. We are in control of our own water supply,” he said.

Van Groningen notes that the operation has had well issues.  “We did have one well collapse on us, so that tells me the water table continues to drop. We irrigate from probably 60 different deep wells, and I’d say one out of sixty–that isn’t  too big of a problem at this point. But if it continues this way, and we remain in a drought, and we don’t get enough rainfall to recharge some of that groundwater, it’s going to get pretty dicey, I think,” he said.

Winegrapes: New acreage helps offset drought impacts

Source: Steve Adler; Ag Alert

Although per-acre yields may be down in some regions due to drought and other concerns, California farmers expect to produce another large winegrape crop this year, as a result of increased acreage. Winegrape harvest has started throughout California, primarily for early varieties of white grapes that are destined to become sparkling wines.

Government estimates issued last week placed California winegrape acreage at 570,000 acres in 2013, up from 508,000 the previous year. About 45,000 of the 2013 winegrape acres were classified as non-bearing.

With the harvest beginning in most areas from 10 days to two weeks earlier than usual, the biggest concern among growers is that many wineries do not yet appear prepared to receive the grapes.

“Being this early, I don’t believe the wineries were prepared to open on time, so right out of the gate we had some quality issues because of early ripeness and delays on the winery side,” Tulare County winegrape grower JR Shannon said. “We’ve barely been picking for two weeks and it is already showing signs that the winery tanks are still full from last year and they aren’t very eager to get grapes in right away.”

Noting that harvest will continue for several more weeks, Shannon said many wineries haven’t even opened yet.

“The early signs are that it is going to be a long, non-grower-friendly season and the wineries are showing no excitement about anything except pinot grigio. We spent a lot of money planting these new vineyards for them and they are not cooperating in getting the grapes into the wineries,” he said.

That view was supported by Nat DiBuduo, president and CEO of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno, who said there is real concern among growers who don’t have contracts with wineries.

“We are getting reports of some of the larger wineries that have decided to bottle as needed, which means the tanks are full. We know the 2012 crop and the 2013 crop were big, and what that has created is that they aren’t buying any more grapes than what has been contracted for. And there are a lot of grapes that aren’t contracted,” he said.

DiBuduo said the vast majority of grapes are under long-term contracts, but there are some that don’t have contracts and growers in that situation are just waiting for wineries to start buying them.

“I hope the wineries start to realize that this is going to be a lighter crop. They will all honor their contracts, but I am hopeful that they will recognize the smaller crop and buy these other grapes. The speculation is that some of these wineries will come out with lower prices when all of these growers are in panic mode,” he said.

In Lodi, winegrape grower Joe Valente of Kautz Farms said harvest at his vineyards would begin this week, putting it 10 days earlier than usual.

“It is probably one of the earliest or second-to-the-earliest starts that I have seen here in Lodi in the past 35 years. We are starting this week, but it all depends on the sugars. Ideally, once we get started we can keep going, but it is all dictated by the sugars,” he said.

Valente also expressed concern about a potential shortage of tank space for this year’s grapes.

“The last two years were large crops, and how empty the tanks are going into harvest will dictate how much we will be able to pick. It depends on the varietals that are in demand. They will find room in the tanks for certain varieties that are in demand,” he said.

On the South Coast, grape grower Jeff Frey of Santa Maria said he has heard talk of tank shortages, but at this point it doesn’t appear to be an issue in his area. A bigger issue for coastal growers is the ongoing drought, he said.

“The situation concerning drought on the South Coast depends on where you are at. We haven’t had any rain to speak of, but growers who were able to irrigate through the winter are looking pretty good. We have a pretty good crop set and we will start harvesting next week, which is very early for us. I have a few vineyards that are out of the periphery that have wells that are going dry and there isn’t much water, so those yields will be down,” he said.

In the Paso Robles area, grower Neil Roberts of Templeton said he is very pleased with the way winegrapes developed this year.

“The crop looks average in size, which is probably a good thing, and the quality looks tremendous,” Roberts said. “We’ve been OK with water. Some of the shallower wells have had some issues, but overall there weren’t any problems. If everything goes well, we should be done by the end of October.”

DiBuduo said the drought is having an impact in the San Joaquin Valley as well. The quality of the grapes being produced is fine and sugar levels are good, but the berries and the bunches are smaller, he said.

“It appears that the overall crop will be lighter than last year and a lot of it has to do with the drought. Growers have tried to maintain the vines and keep them as fresh as possible, but we are hearing from all over the place about growers’ pumps going out and it has been taking several weeks for the pump repair people to take care of the problem,” he said.

Shannon, too, has been having problems with lack of water. He said he has been forced to pay up to $1,200 an acre-foot for water that in a normal year costs $60.

“It is kind of salt in the wound right now with all the other issues we have been dealing with,” he said. “Hopefully the groundwater will last another three months.”

Shannon said he has three or four wells out of commission waiting for pump repair, calling 2014 “the toughest year in my experience.”

Valente said that so far this season, he hasn’t had any problem with wells.

“Our concern is groundwater legislation and what that might mean to us. We keep hearing that farmers aren’t managing our groundwater, and I truly believe that the state and federal governments aren’t managing our surface water,” he said.