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October 2007, Volume 13, Number 4

Farm Labor Shortages, Mechanization

There were predictions of farm labor shortages in summer-fall 2007. The Wall Street Journal in a July 20, 2007 editorial claimed that "farmers nationwide are facing their most serious labor shortage in years." The editorial asserted that "20 percent of American agricultural products were stranded at the farm gate" in 2006, including a third of North Carolina cucumbers, and predicted that crop losses in California would hit 30 percent in 2007.

US cucumber receipts were a record $400 million in 2006, up from $383 million in 2005 and $383 million in 2004. Fresh-market cucumber shipments in 2006 were 14.5 million hundredweight, up from 14.1 million in 2005 and 13.9 million 2004. US production of cucumbers for pickles was about 1 billion pounds in 2006, down from 1.1 billion in 2005, but prices rose from $256 per 100 pounds to $296 per 100 pounds. About 70 percent of North Carolina cucumbers in 2002 were harvested for processing.

A Wall Street Journal editorial noted that migrants, "often illegal," have created an "efficient ...informal guest worker program." This system is being threatened because fewer newcomers are arriving and those who elude the Border Patrol are staying longer and finding nonfarm jobs. Since "growers can only afford to pay so much and stay competitive," the editorial asserts that some US growers are moving fruit and vegetable production abroad.

The California Farm Bureau Federation estimated that farm labor shortages resulted in $85 million in losses in 2006. It conducted a survey of its grower-members in 2007, asking how many more workers they wanted to hire and what losses occurred due to lack of workers.

In 2006, the Lake county California pear harvest was the focus of media attention. The New York Times ran a front-page story on September 22, 2006 showing pears rotting on the ground, allegedly for lack of labor. The Lake County Record Bee on August 24, 2007 reported that there was an ample supply of pickers for the large and early pear crop; by some estimates, 800 to 900 workers can pick the county's pears. In 2006, the larger pear crop in the Sacramento delta was late, so that fewer-than-usual workers migrated north to Lake county to pick pears.

Some Lake County growers are shifting to picking platforms, self-propelled machines that eliminate ladders and allow pickers to put pears on a conveyor belt, speeding productivity and making more workers available.

California had 20,350 acres of pears in 2002, according to the COA, down slightly from 1997; almost two-thirds of the pear acreage was in relatively large operations with 100 acres or more. Lake county had 3,250 acres, 16 percent of the state total, and a smaller share of the nonbearing acreage, suggesting a shrinking industry.

Data for 2006 are not generally available until the summer or fall of the next year. USDA's Vegetable and Melon Yearbook, released in July 2007, noted that vegetable and melon receipts were a record $19 billion in 2006. The USDA's 2006 Fruit and Tree Nut Yearbook, released in October 2006, noted that fruit and tree nut receipts were an all time high of $17 billion in 2005.

The September 5, 2007 issue of Ag Alert reported that the 2007 raisin grape harvest began a week earlier than usual, and that most farmers expected sufficient supplies of harvest workers. About 40 percent of the raisin grapes are harvested with some type of mechanization, which has reduced the peak employment in the raisin industry from 50,000 to 25,000. The story did not mention wages; piece rates are typically $0.25 for cutting 25 pounds of green raisins and laying them on paper trays to dry into raisins. California produces about 300,000 tons of raisins a year. Two-thirds are consumed domestically, and a third are exported.

California typically produces about 525,000 tons of cling peaches, which are primarily canned. The 2006 harvest was the lowest of the past decade, about 355,000 tons, but the 2007 harvest is expected to top 500,000 tons. The industry reported that up to 10 percent of the 2007 harvest was picked by machines that grasp the trunk and shake the peaches from the tree. Cling peach acreage is declining, and is about 26,000 in 2007.

Colorado. Grand Junction peach growers were quoted on September 1, 2007 complaining of too few pickers. One said that since "There is no labor walking up and down the road like there was years ago," he may bulldoze three acres of peaches.

However, Brant Harrison of Kokopelli Farm and Produce said he had no problems finding workers because he hires workers year round.

Steve Nieslanik of 400-acre Okagawa Farms in Orchard Mesa obtains 20 workers via the H-2A program and hires 10 US workers. He complained of rising costs, as the CO AEWR rose from $8.33 in 2005 to $8.79 in 2006. Max Nolan of the 100-acre Nolan Farms hires 20 H-2A workers and advised other growers to build housing and use the program.

New York. The Hudson Valley was poised for its third consecutive good harvest in 2005. However, the New York Apple Association, representing 670 apple growers, said that up to 70 percent of harvesters are unauthorized, and that "No one locally really wants to pick apples for six weeks in the fall."

The Washington Post on August 5, 2007 reported that Puerto Rican coffee farmers are facing labor shortages, losing a third of their crop for lack of bean pickers. A 340-acre farm says it needs 60 to 80 harvesters for August through November, but cannot find workers willing to pick the beans that bring growers up to $10 a pound for $5 to $6 an hour.

Unemployment in the coffee-growing regions is often 25 percent, prompting the Puerto Rico Secretary of Agriculture to oppose coffee growers' pleas for imported workers.

Mexico. The New York Times on September 5, 2007 profiled Imperial Valley vegetable grower Steve Scaroni, who began to produce lettuce and broccoli on rented land in Mexico in 2006. The article suggested that, in addition to familiar reasons of lower costs and off-season production, US producers are shifting to Mexico to obtain legal workers.

Scaroni says that Mexican wages are $11 a day, compared to $9 an hour in Imperial. He rejected raising US wages to attract workers, asserting "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I did that [raise US wages] I would raise my costs and I would not have a legal work force."

US imports of lettuce from Mexico began to increase in 2001-02, and have averaged about 45,000 tons a year since then. The US produces about 4.5 million tons of lettuce each year, so imports from Mexico are equivalent to one percent of US production.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asserted in July 2007 that there may be 46,000 acres of land in Guanajuato and Baja California operated by US growers. The US has 3.2 million acres devoted to vegetable production, including two million for fresh-market vegetables; 46,000 acres would be about two percent of US fresh vegetable acreage.

Mechanization. Farm papers are reporting more efforts to mechanize harvesting. Oxbo International has developed a $1 million continuous canopy shaker machine to harvest Florida's Valencia oranges. It is used by the Barron Collier Partnership to harvest 11,000 acres in southwestern Florida, with one machine harvesting 1.2 million boxes a season, the work of 100 to 200 hand harvesters.

The machines are being refined to automatically adjust the shaking force and depth of the fingers that dislodge the fruit, and yield monitors are being developed that allow growers to determine yields precisely. The machine harvests oranges for $1 per 90-pound box, compared to $1.50 to $2 for hand-harvested fruit.

Advances in computing power and hydraulics have enabled San Diego-based Vision Robotics to develop machines to harvest navel oranges with "near-human" sensitivity. The Vision Robotics machine locates ripe fruit, and a robotic picker harvests it.

Salinas Valley-based Ramsay Highlander has developed a machine that uses band-saws or water knives to cut heads of lettuce- it can pick, clean, core and pack lettuce and other field greens.

The Oregonian on July 21, 2007 reported on the development of a New Holland grape harvester that uses "shaker rods" to dislodge grapes and drop them into silicon rubber baskets. One reason to buy the $200,000 machine is to harvest at night, so that grapes are cooler, resulting in higher quality wine. Oregonians for Immigration Reform touted the harvester as an alternative to migrant workers.

Julia Preston, "Short on Labor, Farmers in U.S. Shift to Mexico," New York Times, September 5, 2007. Le Roy Standish, "Too few laborers leave some orchards with rotting fruit," Daily Sentinel, September 01, 2007. Lisa W. Foderaro, "Plenty of Apples, but Possibly a Shortage of Immigrant Pickers," New York Times, August 21, 2007. Angie Chuang, "Grape harvester illustrates mechanics of labor debates," Oregonian, July 21, 2007