Industry experts discuss labor shortage’s effect on wages, mechanization and higher immigration at conference in Visalia
By Dennis Pollock
California Farm Bureau Federation
VISALIA – Shortages of qualified on-farm employees will have both short-term and long-term ramifications for California agriculture, according to speakers at an annual outlook conference.
A panel at the Outlook 2018 Conference, presented in Visalia last month by the California Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, discussed how employee shortages have affected wages, mechanization and the use of the existing federal agricultural employee visa program.
Bryan Little, who serves as chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service and director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the ongoing shortages have greatly boosted the number of employees brought into the country under the H-2A visa program—an observation confirmed by Ruben Lugo, regional agricultural enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, Western Region.
In California, that number has risen from 5,000 seven years ago to about 18,000 today, the panelists said.
Little said both farmers and those in the workforce are aging. At the same time, employment costs are rising. The minimum wage will rise each year until 2022, and new overtime rules for agriculture will be phased in, beginning next year.
Employment costs amount to 60 percent of the overall cost of production, Little said, and that is going up 25 to 30 percent, forcing some tough decision making by farm operators.
That’s among reasons growers are moving to increased mechanization.
“Processing tomatoes have been machine-harvested for ages,” Little said. “Mechanical winegrape harvesting has increased in the past 10 years, and hand harvesting is now limited to some high-value wines in Napa-Sonoma or on steep land. Strawberry growers are looking at machine harvesting, but that’s probably 10 years in the future.”
Growers are also transitioning from crops that require a lot of employees and into crops such as pistachios, almonds and walnuts that can be harvested by machine.
A proceedings book for the conference included information from a survey CFBF conducted during 2017, which showed 55 percent of responding farmers had experienced employee shortages.
When asked what actions they have taken in response to the shortages, the most-frequent action was to offer increased wages, benefits and other incentives. One-third of respondents said they used mechanization if available. Another 29 percent attempted or investigated mechanization.
Fewer than 3 percent of those responding used the existing H-2A agricultural immigration program. Farm Bureau and other organizations continue to advocate for changes to the agricultural-visa program to make it more practical and flexible for employers and employees.
Lugo explained that employers may import temporary, foreign agricultural employees under H-2A only if there are not sufficient local workers willing and able to perform needed services.
Those who can petition for H-2A workers include growers, packers, nurseries and agricultural associations. The H-2A employees cannot be “loaned” to neighboring farms, Lugo said, but the employee can work for multiple growers if it’s disclosed in a contract and the petitioner is a farm labor contractor or agricultural association.
Lugo said the H-2A program is being used to bring workers to the Central Coast to work in strawberries and blueberries.
“Half of the workers in strawberries on the Central Coast are H-2A,” he said.
Eight agencies oversee the H-2A application process and enforce regulations.
Lugo said there have been instances when communities have complained about farmworker housing required under the H-2A program. One such instance was in Nipomo, where neighbors criticized a development that would potentially house up to 112 immigrant farm employees.
“This is an opportunity to educate the citizens of California,” Lugo said, adding he believes farmers and agricultural organizations should explain that the employees are necessary to help alleviate a national shortage and that the H-2A program provides a lot of scrutiny of both employers and foreign workers, as well as employee housing.
In some instances, he said, farm labor contractors are buying apartments or hotels and motels, and converting them to meet the standards required under the program.
He recommended that employers interested in the H-2A program should look into its requirements and “start small and then expand.”
“Secure your housing and transportation before you apply for H-2A workers,” he said. “Keep a recruitment report and offer the H-2A job opportunity to all eligible U.S. workers.”
The panel discussion closed with comments from Patrick Zelaya, founder and CEO of HeavyConnect, an agricultural technology company in the Salinas Valley. It offers a farm management mobile app that centralizes information such as tractor location, employee timecards and field observations. The platform connects farm equipment with farm managers.
“It’s a way to get rid of paperwork in the field,” Zelaya said. “Operational paperwork—time sheets, piece work documentation—consumes the workday.”
Dennis Pollock is a reporter in Fresno. He may be contacted at [email protected].