Migrant workers pick strawberries and package them directly in the field, ready for shipping. Photo By David A Litman / Shutterstock.com

By Jenifer VanAlstein, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

With the looming deadline of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and the continued water delivery crisis that faces the Valley, other issues affecting agriculture have been overlooked or put on the backburner by lawmakers. Many growers have been consumed with water management and finding alternative water resources. And with the party in power in our state, things will only get worse. But what have our leaders done to address the prominent labor shortage plaguing our state?

We are currently in our “off season” for ag labor here in the Valley. A very short “off season,” as we are blessed to have nearly year-round harvesting given the diversity of crops able to grow in our rich soil. Labor companies have just completed citrus season and are quickly gearing up for the summer grape season. For decades, Kern has been the top table-grape producing county, yet grape commodity prices have been stagnant since the 1990s. A lot of grape growers are diversifying their fields and growing almonds, citrus, hemp, and other less labor-intensive crops.

The labor shortage in the Valley is still a very prominent issue, regardless of the many other issues facing our industry. It has become incredibly cutthroat among ag labor contractors because of the lack of labor. Contractors simply cannot find the manpower as many laborers are aging out of the workforce and a younger generation that is simply not willing to work manual field labor. Currently, the youngest field workers are in their 30s. There is a lot of hostility and extreme competition among ag labor contractors and even evidence of companies trying to poach contractors and crews from their competitors. 

Currently, ag labor contractors are running minimal crews as it is. This has been the case since before COVID. Luckily, farm laborers are currently able to get the COVID vaccine, for those who are willing to take it. While COVID has undoubtedly affected the labor shortage, this crisis has been around for much longer. We simply cannot find people willing to work. Or those that are working are not as productive as previous generations. Is it a generational issue? Is it a work ethic issue? Many contractors blame smart phones for lack of productivity (as is the case in many other industries). 

And the price of labor continues to rise at alarming rates. Of course, minimum wage increases will be the biggest cost factor for growers. But, as previously stated, commodity prices are stagnant. So, more often than not, it is the ag labor contractor companies who take the hit in profit. In addition, other regulations increase cost, and many often go unused–shade requirements, for instance. Companies are required to provide shade coverings for workers. While on the surface, that may seem logical and reasonably cost effective, the structures more often than not go unused. Why? Because when it’s over 100 degrees outside, it is simply cooler to rest under the vines. But our state does not consider that a “break” because the employee is still in the field. And of course, all companies are under the constant threat of frivolous lawsuits.

The debate of hourly wage vs. piece rate has also been a hot topic in agriculture for several years. Growers tend to like piece rate because it is a set rate, they can predict prices and make business decisions accordingly. Laborers do not like it because they are typically working as a family where not everyone can work at the same rate, and therefore prefer hourly wages so they can make family income decisions. 

Then we also have the issue of immigration status and liability. The “pipeline” in the ag industry is that growers hire farm labor contractors who provide the equipment and labor; these companies then hire foremen who hire the field workers. There are systems in place at various levels for e-verification of immigration status, however, that is very difficult to confirm, especially when companies are not legally able to question someone’s immigration status. That can only be handled through the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Perhaps by the time lawmakers debate the labor shortage issue again, it will be a moot point. With SGMA, we have already witnessed acreage being taken out of production. I hope this is not the answer as this is not a real solution. We have some of the richest land in the world in the Central Valley… if we could just get water and labor to it. It reminds me of a Bible verse, Luke 10:2: “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” While in this verse, Jesus is talking about evangelism, the metaphor hits home for a farmer. You can have the greatest, most abundant crop, but unless you have the laborers to harvest that crop, it will not benefit you if it remains on the vine. 

We need to bring the issue of the ag labor shortage back to the forefront of lawmakers’ minds. COVID has certainly (and with good reason) consumed their time for this year’s legislative cycle, but just because one crisis has come to the forefront does not mean the other crises have been resolved.