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.”
California Sweet Potatoes Grow in Well-Drained Soil
By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor
California sweet potatoes are in full harvest, and our potatoes are one of a kind, said Scott Stoddard a UCANR Cooperative Extension farm advisor for vegetable crops in Merced County. The difference is the sheen.
“Sometimes they come up clean out of the ground because we’ve grown them in a very loose sand, so the sand just falls off of them, and it almost leaves some shine,” he said.
You can get what is called the California Sheen.
In a lot of other areas of the country, there is a little bit of mud and a little bit of silt. The crop they’re digging up is growing in the ground and kind of looks like it needs to be washed.
“A lot of times with California sweet potatoes, they don’t even look like they need to be washed when they come up out of the ground. It looks like they can just go straight from the field to fork,” Stoddard said.
Well-drained soil is important. Well-drained soil is what they grow best in.
“Not like a cactus where they can survive on no water, but we can get by in about two and a half acre feet. That’ll give you a good 100 percent potential yield,” Stoddard explained.
Sweet Potato Season Under Way: Labor Issues Are Big Concern
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
With the 2017 sweet potato season getting under way, there are major concerns about the cost of labor – in particular, the new overtime law.
“It is a high-labor crop, which makes it a very expensive crop to farm. It use to be that fumigation challenges were the biggest concern, but now it’s the overtime law,” said Scott Stoddard, a Merced County vegetable crops farm advisor with UC Cooperative Extension.
“Before the new law, workers often put in a 10-hour day during harvest. So I think in order for growers to survive, they will be forced to change the harvest methods. We have to figure out how to make the harvest less expensive,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard has had a conversation with growers about figuring out a way to increase harvest efficiency.
“Again, the expensive part of the operation is the fact that harvesting is a very slow operation,” Stoddard explained. “You’re going to have a tractor and a driver, and you’re going to have five or six people on this piece of equipment. And in a 10-hour day, this harvester might do one acre of ground.”
Right there alone, there are six employees that are making at or more than minimum wage: $12 to $15 an hour. After workman’s comp and social security are factored in, farmers are looking at six people at $12 an hour or combined $72 dollars an hour. Multiply that by 8 hours – that’s $576 dollars – and that’s only for the labor.
“And if you have to go overtime, which is needed at harvest, then labor cost rise very steeply,” Stoddard said.
Then you have to throw in everything else: the equipment costs, diesel and maintenance. And you also have the driver of the harvester. And then you have the forklifts out in the field and the portable bathroom rentals. All of a sudden, costs are up around $1,500 an acre just for harvest.
We have to ask, is it really profitable to grow sweet potatoes?
“They continue to do it, so it must be,” Stoddard said. “However, the changes in both the overtime law as well as the increase in the minimum wage are increasing the labor by 50 percent. So that means growers will need to increase their efficiency an additional 50 percent. And that’s what the industry is working on.”
Nisei Farmers League and African American Farmers of California Discuss Disastrous AB 1066 in Sacramento Today
EDITOR’S NOTE: SEE TEDX TALK VIDEO BELOW OF WILL SCOTT, JR., PRESIDENT OF AFRICAN AMERICAN FARMERS OF CALIFORNIA.
TODAY,Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League and Will Scott, Jr., president of the African American Farmers of Californiaare meeting in Sacramento with members of the California Assembly to explain the disastrous consequences of AB 1066, referred to as Agricultural workers: wages, hours, and working conditions, on small and minority farmers.
The effects of this legislation, particularly the Phase-In Overtime for Agricultural Workers Act of 2016, will be detrimental not only to the farmworker who counts on the extra hours, but to the farmer who, with the increasing costs of regulations and the lack of water, will be forced to cut back on crops and their workforce, according to their joint press release.
“The small and minority farmer will be adversely affected by this ill-conceived legislation,” said Manuel Cunha Jr. “The small farmer works hand in hand with their workforce in the fields and [is] in a better position —with direct input from the workers—to determine schedules rather than politicians in Sacramento looking for a soundbite,” he explained. “Without meeting with our small and minority farmers and farmworkers, these politicians pass legislation that will cost our workforce money, our farmers crops, and the residents of California the fresh fruits and vegetables they enjoy everyday.”
Both Manuel Cunha Jr. and Will Scott believe the Legislators need to consider the small and minority farmers when casting their votes. “We are confident that after we meet with the Assembly members,” said Will Scott, Jr., they will understand how harmful this legislation is to our farmers and farmworkers. It is our hope that by educating the members, they will understand the importance of this bill and vote No on AB 1066.”
The League continues to inform grower members about ever changing regulations and policies providing legal assistance for labor and workplace related issues. Our leadership and staff maintains a close working relationship with local, state and federal agencies and legislators to assure grower interests are adequately understood and defended.
The NFL also collaborates with other grower and agricultural organizations in both California and other states to help provide a powerful, unified voice for the agricultural community.
Grower members are kept informed through meetings, seminars, newsletters and special bulletins.
Strength, clear focus and growers looking out for growers and farm workers… that is what the Nisei Farmers League is all about.
The Fresno-based African American Farmers of California organization has doubled its membership since it opened a 16-acre demonstration farm in Fresno County, which serves as a testing area where new farmers can get hands-on experience growing a variety of produce.
One of Scott Family Farms primary goals is to reintroduce Southern specialty crops, part of the traditional African American diet, into black communities, to help stop the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Crops include: black-eyed peas, crowder peas, purple hull peas, field peas, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard, corn, tomatoes, okra and sweet potatoes.
“The nutritional value of this food was passed down the generations,” said Will Scott, Jr. “It helped build our immune system; kept us healthy and strong. We hope to pass it on to sustain the next generation.”