Mark Bolda's Berry Blog
Mark here. I'm including below really nice overview of the current ag labor issue in California by colleague Laura Tourte. The intensity of work and dependence of our agriculture on labor here on the Central Coast make this topic really relevant and, given the looming changes in cost and availability, pretty important to understand well.
Growers often report – and researchers generally agree – that labor shortages exist in agriculture along the Central Coast and elsewhere in California, and that labor costs are rising. The reasons are for this situation are complex and multifaceted. Here are some considerations:
- The fresh market crops that dominate agricultural production along the Central Coast are labor intensive. Weeding, pruning and training, irrigation and harvest are examples of practices that are especially labor intensive.
- Labor represents between almost 30 and 60 percent of total production and harvest costs, depending upon the crop and crop cycle. It may be even higher for some crops grown elsewhere in California.
- Labor costs are rising, in part because of changing regulations associated with minimum wage, overtime, health care, paid sick leave and non-productive time, but also because there is a shortage of agricultural labor along with an increased demand for workers.
- Increased labor and production costs can strain and negatively impact the already thin profit margins associated with some crops.
- Immigration constraints and tightened border enforcement have reduced the number of agricultural workers from Mexico—the primary source of labor—that are seeking work in the area and state. The expanding agricultural industry in Mexico has also reduced the number of workers seeking employment here.
- The agricultural labor force is aging and more settled, and have families and other connections to local communities. Because of this, experienced workers do not migrate with the crop production and harvest cycles as often as in the past.
- Most harvest and other labor intensive practices for fresh market crops have not yet been highly mechanized or automated because of important “sensory attributes”—particularly sight and touch—that humans bring to agricultural work. Some commercially available technology already exists, and public and private research efforts are underway to mechanize or automate other labor intensive practices. Mechanical aids are also being used if available, or are being developed, with the goal of improving labor efficiency.
- Some of the area's farmers now supplement their labor forces with foreign guest workers using the federal H-2A program. The program has expanded rapidly in California in recent years increasing from roughly 3,000 certified farm jobs in fiscal year 2012 to 15,000 in fiscal year 2017. However, the program's recruitment process, requirements and associated costs limit it as a viable option for some growers.
- Affordable housing for farm workers is often lacking or constrained. Efforts to address housing issues are in discussion and in progress in the area.
The full impact of labor shortages and rising labor costs is not yet known. The Race in the Fields: Imports, Machines and Migrants, a California Agriculture article by Philip Martin, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis considers whether current conditions will result in rising imported produce, mechanization, or more foreign guest workers in agriculture. It is also one of the sources of information for this blog article, along with other articles from California Agriculture. http://calag.ucanr.edu/. Cost information is from various cost and return studies, which can be found at https://coststudies.ucdavis.edu.
One of the unsolved mysteries of our work in berries has been what of the pupae of spotted wing drosophila? As anyone who has worked with this fly in the lab knows, many larvae exit the fruit and pupate outside, either on the surface of the fruit or on the floor and walls of the container in which they are being held.
In the field however, it's been very rare to find the pupae. We don't see them on the leaves or fruit hanging on the plant, and one generally doesn't find them on the surface of the soil.
Following the lead of a group of scientists out of Maine on blueberry, my research assistant Monise and I are going to attempt to solve this issue once and for all. We first confirm that a fallen fruit has at least one larvae in it, and then covering each of these with a centrifuge tube with airholes punched in the sides, taking care to push the tube about an inch into the ground (see picture below). Since we are engaged in science and not a quest to confirm our own bias, we accompany these tubes with an equal number of tubes without fruit in them. After about a week, Monise will recover these tubes, separate the fruit from soil and look in both for the pupae.
Here's a first for me, maybe for a lot of you as well. By way of colleague Laura Tourte, we have an example of Chobani Yogurt being marketed as a having a taste of a specific strawberry variety in it - in this case the UC variety Monterey. Really intriguing to see this and something to think about.
Photo courtesy Laura Tourte, UCCE.
When growers are considering a new crop to plant, and penciling out their expenses and income, cost estimates from the University of California may help. A new cost and return study for commercially producing raspberries released by UC ANR Agricultural Issues Center and UC Cooperative Extension includes an expanded section on labor.
Sample costs to establish, produce and harvest raspberries for fresh market in Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties are presented in “Sample Costs to Produce and Harvest Fresh Market Raspberries in the Central Coast Region – 2017.”
“The study focuses on the many complexities and costs of primocane raspberry production over a three-year period, including crop establishment, fertility practices, overhead tunnel management, harvest and rising labor costs,” said Mark Bolda, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor and co-author of the study.
The analysis is based upon a hypothetical well-managed farming operation using practices common to the region. The costs, materials, and practices shown in this study will not apply to all farms. Growers, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors and other agricultural associates provided input and reviewed the methods and findings of the study.
“This raspberry cost and return study is the result of significant effort on the part of UC Cooperative Extension, the Agricultural Issues Center and several grower and industry collaborators, who shared their expertise and contributed mightily to the end product,” said Laura Tourte, UC Cooperative Extension farm management advisor and co-author of the study.
This study assumes a farm size of 45 contiguous acres of rented land. Raspberries are planted on 42 acres. The crop is hand-harvested and packed into 4.5-pound trays. There is a fall harvest during production year 1, a spring and fall harvest during production year 2, and a spring harvest during production year 3. Each harvest is three months long.
The authors describe the assumptions used to identify current costs for production material prices and yields. Tables show the phase-in schedules for California's minimum wage and overtime laws through the year 2022. Other tables show the monthly cash costs, the costs and returns per acre, hourly equipment costs, and the whole farm annual equipment, investment and business overhead costs.
Free copies of “Sample Costs to Produce and Harvest Fresh Market Raspberries in the Central Coast Region – 2017” can be downloaded from the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics website https://coststudies.ucdavis.edu. Sample cost of production studies for many other commodities are also available at the website.
The cost and returns studies program is funded by the UC Agricultural Issues Center and UC Cooperative Extension, both of which are part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
Ocado just got picked up by the supermarket chain Kroger in a bid to enhance the grocer's online business so it's been in the news. In particular the operation of its warehouse has been getting some attention.
People in agriculture shouldn't think they are the only ones straining how to integrate automation into their operations. Egroceries is a pretty tricky deal, even Amazon is wrestling with it and the idea of "store picking" (where an employee goes out into the physical store to fulfill the orders) is waaay too expensive for a low margin business like food retail and is not it. Hence the build out you see here.
If you are interested in automating agriculture, you should watch this and think about it. What strikes me about the whole set up is how it plays to the strengths of the machines rather than those of people.
Have a look.