Farm Labour – California’s Biggest Challenge??

Visit Date: 30th March 2016
Location: Firebaugh, Fresno, California

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A shortage of labour and an increasing minimum wage is arguable the biggest challenge facing Californian farmers and as a result, they are looking for technologies to address this issue. Visiting an asparagus farm in the Central Valley of California, our Nuffield group got to grips with the labour challenges that are facing the Californian agri-sector.

The Central Valley is a huge employer of farmworkers, with many labour intensive crops grown ranging from soft fruits to tomatoes and asparagus. The region is undoubtedly the US’s greatest food resource with approximately a third of all US food produced coming from this area.

Our host summarised the main two issues regarding farm labour as follows;

  • first, the labour force predominantly consisting of Mexicans is decreasing as immigration policy tightens, and
  • second, the state has raised the minimum wage making labour more expensive.

California is home to an estimated 2.5 million illegal immigrants, more than any other state. Perhaps nowhere else within the US captures the contradictions and complications of immigration policy better than California’s Central Valley, where nearly all farmworkers are immigrants, roughly half of them living and working within the region illegally.

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As Trump gains momentum and promises to build ‘his wall’ if elected, now, more than ever, is the spotlight falling on immigration policy. That reality is shaping the views of many farmers who traditionally have strong republican values, who are now seeking a more libertarian approach on immigration policy as they directly experience the impact of a reducing labour supply. We were told repeatedly, much to our hosts frustration, that your average young American doesn’t want to take up manual farm work. Farm owners are actively pressing to make it easier for ‘would be immigrants’ to obtain agricultural visas, with the aim of creating a more reliable labour supply.

The cost of labour is also increasing. Recently, the minimum wage has risen to $11 (£8.50) per hour and is set to increase to $15 (£11.55) per hour by 2022. While it’s only a few dollars, this increase over a relatively short period of time is having a big impact on growers, particularly those in the stone fruit sector where labour can represent nearly 60% of the cost of the box of fruit. This issue has even pushed some farming businesses to give up growing certain crops altogether, and one of the reasons why the state has seen many farmers now focusing on almonds and other crops that can be mechanically harvested.

Visiting an asparagus grower, we learned why labour is his biggest concern.

Asparagus is a crop which requires attention. Fast growing and delicate, its stems need to be hand cut during the short harvest period, which makes it very labour intensive crop. Margins are tight, and due to a combination of drought, increased labour costs and labour shortages just 11,500 acres of Californian farmland was planted with asparagus in 2014 — down from a high of 40,900 acres in 2000.

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Most vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, celery etc are planted, harvested and tilled every season. But asparagus plants survive for 15 or even 20 years. For about nine months of the year, the asparagus plants lie dormant; their stems grow to several feet in height and sprout long leaves that look like fennel fronds. In the spring, the tall ferms are cut, and the roots of the plant respond by drawing on their stores of nutrients to send new stems up from the soil. Left untended, these new stems would stretch into tall fronds like their predecessors, but asparagus farmers cut them out of the ground when they’re about nine inches long, before the flower at their tip reaches maturity. These young stems and flowers are the asparagus spears we like to eat.

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Australian Nuffield Scholar Randell Wilksch and I inspecting asparagus growing

 

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What makes asparagus so labour intensive is that a mature plant with a sufficient cache of nutrients will sprout multiple asparagus spears every single day. They grow to their full length in just 24 hours. If a spear remains uncut for much longer than that, it will continue to grow into an inedible fern. This means that a grower must harvest the entire plot of asparagus every day of the season. And because the spears rise from the earth in different places every day and are relatively fragile, each one has to be cut from the ground individually, by hand.

The work doesn’t end in the field. Once the spears have come out of the ground, The asparagus must be taken into a packing shed where they are cut down to a uniform length, sorted by diameter and grouped into similar-sized bunches. The packing house which we visited had two lines, one which was predominately controlled by a labour resource, and the other which is increasing becoming more mechanised.

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Growers are exploring how technology can help and many have started implementing technologies throughout their operations, not necessarily within the field, but by introducing more technology within the packing houses, where its usually a much easier and cheaper place to innovate.

Even though the lack of water threatens to wipe out production, the key conversation we had on this visit focused on labour as being the main business challenge. Many farmers see this as the biggest issue facing Californian agriculture, and they believe that the industry is now at tipping point. Finding a means of combining technology and labour resource to enable many to stay competitive is going to be vital, as many farmers that we visited commented that simply raising the price of produce won’t work if they are to remain competitive within both the domestic and export market.

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