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.”

Despite Great Harvest, California Apple Growers Face Challenges

California Apple Growers Face Regulatory Disadvantage

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

Many California apple growers are in the midst of harvest season right now. Alex Ott, executive director of the Clovis-based California Apple Commission expects a 3% increase in production across the country. Ott foresees a 1% increase in California this season, where apples stand out because of their freshness.

“California is the fifth largest producer of apples in the United States,” Ott explained. “We are about the third largest exporter of apples in the United States. We like to pick, pack and ship. Unlike other states that like to store fruit and have that fruit around longer, California apple growers like to get in and get out,” Ott said.california-apple-commission-logo California Apple

“We have a small marketing window and we pride ourselves on fresh crops,” Ott elaborated. “So we try to get out of the market no later than December. Sometimes we go as late as January, but the idea is to [quickly] fill that niche window between the Chilean and the Washington state fruit.”

Alex Ott, executive director of the Clovis-based California Apple Commission
Alex Ott, executive director of the Clovis-based California Apple Commission

Yet, the California apple industry faces challenges going forward. Ott stated, “Over the last five years, California apple crop production has decreased by nearly 39%. A lot of that has to do with the changing of the crops. Any time you start to see an uptick in another crop, especially when it is not hand labor-intensive like apples, you will see a migration to those types of crops.”

Transitioning toward less labor-intensive crops may accelerate since Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1066. This bill will enable California farm employees to accrue overtime pay after working an 8-hour day, instead of a 10-hour day.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge for California apple growers,” Ott said, especially given the labor shortage. “So apple production in the state will decrease.”

Ott lamented many countries already produce a lot of these other less labor-intensive crops. AB 1066 definitely puts us at a competitive disadvantage in keeping up with demand. The challenge is how can California apple growers compete with farmers in other state and countries who can do it faster and cheaper?

$9 Per Hour Minimum Wage Starts Next Week

By Christine Souza; Ag Alert

Starting July 1, the California state minimum wage increases to $9 per hour, a hike that growers say will result in more challenges on the farm and higher costs overall.

Monterey County strawberry grower Ed Ortega said, “In agriculture, nobody can pay just minimum wage.

“People will find a job doing something else that is much easier work than working in agriculture for minimum wage. They’d rather go and flip burgers for nine bucks,” Ortega said. “Our work demands more than a minimum wage employee, so every time the minimum wage goes up, the whole ladder in our entire pay structure goes up. There’s no such thing as paying the bottom guy more and not the top guy. The whole ladder rises.”

California’s minimum wage increase to $9 per hour is a result of the passage of Assembly Bill 10 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, in 2013. AB 10 also provided for a second hike in the California minimum wage to $10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016.

Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of labor affairs and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service, said raising California’s minimum wage might have happened through a ballot initiative had AB 10 not become law last year.

Proponents of increasing the minimum wage argue it is needed to reduce poverty, while business groups and those opposed believe raising the hourly minimum wage would increase business costs and jeopardize California’s economic recovery.

“The majority of farmers already pay their employees much higher than minimum wage, so when these changes occur, employees making more than minimum wage expect to stay that much ahead of the increased rate,” Little said. “In the short term, it will increase costs to employers, but the labor supply is tight right now, so workers are already able to demand fairly high wages, but the increase still impacts operating costs and business profitability.”

Phil Martin, professor of Agriculture Economics at the University of California, Davis, confirmed that higher minimum wages affect some employers and workers more than others.

“Most farm employers have a wage structure, with some employees earning the minimum wage and others more. If the minimum wage rises by $1 an hour, workers earning more than the minimum wage normally expect a similar increase in order to keep their status in the wage hierarchy,” Martin said. “Employers often respond to higher wages with productivity increasing steps, from providing tools that enable workers to work faster to harvesting fields and orchards less often.”

Martin added that fewer new immigrants have already put upward pressure on farm wages and encouraged more use of labor-saving and productivity-increasing machines.

The new minimum wage has triggered other wage concerns for agriculture employers, Little said.

“A number of other costs associated with employing people are tied to employee earnings, like Workers’ Compensation and Unemployment Insurance; the increase in the minimum wage will directly and immediately impact employers’ costs for that. Also, if farm employers augment their workforces by bringing in farm labor contractors, the farm labor contractor is likely to increase the price of the workers they provide to cover that minimum wage increase and related costs.”

Farm labor contractors can be more efficient, and employ people year-round and spread their employment costs across more jobs than a farmer who employs a small number of people can, Little added.

“Farmers face several challenges in 2014, including implementing the Affordable Care Act and dealing with the effects of the drought,” Martin said.

This season, when it comes to the availability of employees, Ortega said, he is again experiencing a shortage of workers.

“We are experiencing the normal shortage that we experienced last year, which is a pretty extreme shortage of labor. Those who have less of a crop to harvest have a more severe labor shortage than those who have a crop to harvest,” Ortega said.

Whether a farm will attract the workers that are needed, Ortega said, depends on the size of the ranch and whether there is enough work to keep employees working. Smaller farms will have more limited opportunities.

“Any farmer who is experiencing a decrease in the water supply will also be experiencing extreme pest pressures, and if you have increased pest pressure, it means higher cost to the farmer,” Ortega said. “It’s an exponential factor. It’s not just raise the minimum wage a dollar; the associated costs go a lot higher than that.”

California is one of 18 states and the District of Columbia that have minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour and California’s $10 minimum is likely to be among the highest in the nation in 2016. Washington currently has the nation’s highest state minimum wage at $9.19 an hour.