Shortage of workers hampers SLO County's crop harvest

County growers are struggling to get enough people to quickly pick crops for sale

jlynem@thetribunenews.comSeptember 19, 2013 

San Luis Obispo County’s harvest season is in full swing, with a variety of crops —from bell peppers to wine grapes — being picked from local fields.

Growers, however, say they have fewer workers, and that has hampered their ability to quickly get wine grapes off the vine and vegetables out of the ground and into the marketplace.

“We’re struggling to find enough people to do the harvest of our specialty crops,” said Dan Sutton, general manager of the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange, which specializes in such vegetables as Napa cabbage and bok choy. “People aren’t available, and this has probably been the most challenging season on record. It’s taking us a lot longer to do what we normally do quite a bit more efficiently.”

In years with an abundance of help, crews would consist of about 12 to 14 people, he said.

Now, crews average about eight to 10, and to keep up with the workload, they have been working longer hours and into the weekend, Sutton said.

It’s particularly taxing given that production is at its highest level now, he said.

“We’re rather busy and will continue to be until the end of November,” Sutton said.

Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, which represents fruit and vegetable growers, is also hearing about the labor shortage from members. Some growers have adjusted work hours and are trying different ways to encourage increased productivity.

“People are reporting that it’s been the worst ever, and that it’s leading to significant crop losses,” she said.

Wineman said she believes the answer is federal immigration reform.

“People have been using the H-2A guest worker visa program, but it’s not without its challenges,” Wineman said.

Talley Farms in the Arroyo Grande Valley has had to rely more on labor contractors this harvest season than in past years, said Ryan Talley, a third-generation farmer.

“We like to have weed-free fields, but we’ve had to save manpower for harvesting the crops,” he said.

The labor shortage is partly because of immigration issues and a shrinking pool of people willing to work on the farm, Talley added.

“It’s just so tight,” he said. “We’ve been bouncing everybody around. Guys that normally just cut Napa, if they have a light day, we might just ship them over to the bell pepper fields. We’re doing more cross-training.”

Dana Merrill, owner of Mesa Vineyard Management and Pomar Junction in Templeton, said growers will often use more than one labor contractor, and if they’re a large enough operation, can use machines to pick grapes. A grower may also work with a winery to extend the harvest, and in the meantime, hope that the heat doesn’t affect the fruit.

“It’s tough because grapes have to come off when they come off,” he said.

Wine grape harvest: ahead of schedule

Despite labor woes, growers say it’s been a harvest season filled with high yields and quality vegetables and fruits.

“It is racing along in high gear right now,” said Dana Merrill of Pomar Junction.

The wine grape harvest in the North County is running two to three weeks ahead of schedule thanks in part to a mild spring with little rainfall but no frost, which can damage vines.

Vines got off to an early start, and so far, yields have been average to above average, said Merrill, who recently finished picking chardonnay grapes and has moved on to merlot.

“When you’re dealing with a lot of grapes, you’re happy … but with supply and demand, it affects the prices,” he said.

“I think at the very least, we won’t see prices go up; they’ll hold steady or go down a bit, which is not all bad. It keeps the price of wine more affordable.”

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