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July 2009, Volume 15, Number 3

California: FVH Crops, Dairies

Batelle conducted a study for Produce Marketing Association that estimated the fresh fruit, vegetable, and horticultural specialty (floral) industry (FVH) accounted for $555 billion of the $13 trillion US GDP in 2006 ( The ratio between each farm dollar and GDP contribution was estimated to be 1 to 17.

The model estimated that fresh fruit and vegetable production directly employed 234,000 FTE workers paid $5.3 billion, an average $22,700 each. These numbers look reasonable, given that the 2007 Census of Agriculture reported that US FVH employers had total farm labor expenditures of $13.4 billion. The 73,600 FVH farms reported 1.2 million direct hires, including two-thirds employed less than 150 days on the responding farm.

Most fresh fruit crops require hand work for thinning, pruning, and harvesting. Newly planted orchards and vineyards often anticipate mechanization of these activities, which means that labor requirements can decrease as acreage expands or is replanted.

Cling peaches provide an example. A peach tree could produce 2,000 very small peaches per tree without thinning; with thinning, the tree may produce 300 larger peaches. Growers sometimes spend $1,000 an acre to thin peaches; the $10,000 German-made Darwin tree thinner reduces the number the blossoms mechanically by using a drum of rotating strings mounted on a tractor. The machine works best when trees are pruned to create a fruiting wall.

San Diego-based Vision Robotics continues to develop a machine to harvest fresh citrus. The system relies on a scout machine with cameras to locate the fruit and transmit a plan to harvest the oranges to a harvester that would use a knife to cut the stem and a suction cup to harvest the fruit. Vision Robotics aims to have both machines operate remotely, that is, with a controller in a distant office.

Strawberries are a California success story, with production and grower prices rising. California is expected to harvest about 605 hundredweight per acre (30 tons) from 39,000 acres in 2009. Growers harvest over five million nine- to 10-pound trays of strawberries a week between April and July.

Cherries are the first of California's tree fruits to be harvested, and their acreage almost tripled to 33,000 acres in 2008 since the early 1990s. San Joaquin county is the top producer, but much of the new acreage is in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Yields vary— they averaged 1.6 tons an acre in 2006 and 3.2 tons in 2008, when farmers received an average $1.40 a pound.

Cherries are hand harvested into 30-pound buckets; harvesting can be two-thirds of variable production costs. Workers picking cherries for piece-rate wages have some of the highest hourly earnings in agriculture, often $12 to $14 an hour.

Cherries are usually sold by growers in 16-pound boxes, but sizing is often done on the basis of a 20-pound box. For example, a row-size 13 package contains about 1,800 cherries in a 20-pound box, while a row-size 10 package has only 900 cherries per box.

Blueberry acreage in California is expanding, surpassing 5,000 acres in 2009, as heat-tolerant varieties are developed. Most California growers plant about 1,200 vines an acre, use drip irrigation systems to cool plants on hot days, and are pruned to grow to a maximum six feet. Most growers pick blueberries by hand at a cost of about $1 a pound, estimating six workers an acre during the May-June harvest, when fields are re-picked every two or three days. Machines harvest many of Oregon's blueberries early in the day.

Dairies. California has 1,800 dairies producing milk worth $7 billion a year. Farmers received $17 per 100 pounds of milk throughout 2008, but prices fell to $10 in 2009; the cost of production is about $15 per 100 pounds. The US has about 57,000 dairy farms. Most estimates suggest they are producing at least five percent too much milk.

The dairy industry is in the midst of its third-buy out in the last year, and the seventh since 2003 in an effort to reduce the supply of milk. Farmers bid for payments to remove cows from their herds, and the low bids are accepted in the privately run buy-out program.

The National Milk Producers Federation hired Texas AgriLife Research to survey 2,000 dairy farms in fall 2008 to obtain information on hired workers. The NMPF study estimated that US dairies employed 138,000 full-time equivalent workers, and that 57 percent were foreign-born.

The surveyed dairies reported paying their employees an average $506 a week, and most offered employees at least one work-related benefit, such as paid vacation, housing, or health insurance. Including the estimated value of benefits, dairies reported that they paid an average $31,521 for each full-time equivalent employee.

The purpose of the study was to estimate what would happen if half of the foreign-born workers were to disappear because of for instance, immigration enforcement. The study predicted that, for every farm worker removed and not replaced, two other jobs would be lost; estimating an overall loss of $11 billion. Furthermore, removing almost 30,000 foreign-born farm workers would, according to the study, reduce milk production by eight percent and raise retail milk prices by 30 percent.

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