Vineyard managers, strawberry farmers and other row-crop growers in northern Santa Barbara County are reporting a significant labor shortage this harvest season.
In fact, despite high unemployment figures nationally and locally, growers have been struggling since the beginning of the year to get enough labor to plant and harvest their crops.
Farming is not for the faint-hearted in the best of times.
Farmers worry about the effect that heat, rain (or the lack of it), bugs, and other pests will have on their crops. And in addition to rising machinery and fuel costs, they are now having to worry about whether they will be able to find enough labor.
John Belfy, owner of Buona Terra Farming and longtime Santa Ynez Valley vineyard manager, is one of the growers who has been having difficulty getting enough labor for vineyard maintenance and harvest.
“We normally have plenty of workers, but we have been having trouble all year finding enough people, especially for harvest,” he said.
“My guys say the border crossing is much more difficult. And strawberries and new raspberry ‘hoop farms’ are increasing worker demand, as they are farmed almost year-round now, instead of being seasonal.”
Dave Peck of Manzanita Berry Farms in Santa Maria agreed.
“The borders have definitely tightened, and we have found that many workers prefer the raspberry and blackberry harvesting over strawberries,” he said.
All workers make more than minimum wage at jobs that do not require a high school diploma. While planting labor is paid by the hour, strawberry harvesters can make between $11 and $20 per hour.
During wine grape harvest, a worker can make between $11 and $28 an hour, because laborers are paid by the weight of what they pick.
Bob Campbell of Campbell Ranch in Lompoc, who farms broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce, has literally left crops in the field because he cannot find enough workers for harvesting.
“Depending on the weather, when the crop is ripe it has to be picked right away. It is very perishable, and you can’t wait three or four days. So this year, because of the labor shortage, we have had to make choices of which crops to harvest.”
In addition to leaving crops in the fields, growers have had to increase labor pay rates. While the growers are absorbing this additional cost for now, it will eventually be passed on to consumers in the form of increased prices for fruit and vegetables.
And wine growers will not be able to absorb all the increase in labor prices — as the cost of making wine increases, so does the cost per bottle.
In some areas mechanization might be a solution. While there are mechanical grape harvesters, they are very expensive — $400,000 to $500,000, which is out of range for most smaller wine grape growers. And many winemakers believe you don’t make the best wine using a mechanical harvester.
“The mechanical harvester is not able to select the best clusters, it just picks everything. It is more difficult to sort out bad clusters after they have been harvested,” said Andres Ibarra, a vineyard manager who also makes wine. “I prefer hand harvested grapes. But if there is not enough labor, then growers will have to look at a mechanical solution.”
For row crop growers, however, there is no mechanical solution.
“There is one robot that is being developed in Europe,” Peck said, “but that is a long way off from being something we can use.”
In addition, not all crops lend themselves to mechanical harvesting.
“The crops don’t always all ripen at the same time, so you can’t harvest everything at once. And lettuce is very delicate,” Campbell said.
Growers interviewed emphasize that they are not looking for undocumented workers; they say all of their workers are documented and pay payroll and income taxes.
Campbell is hoping that, regardless of politics, the federal government will recognize a need for a guest worker visa.
“I try to hire local people but they normally don’t last more than three or four days. My laborers are not taking jobs away from locals, and given the increased demand, there are not enough workers to meet that demand.”
Large signs, in Spanish, have sprouted up around Santa Maria to announce that workers are wanted. However, most local farmers believe the labor shortage is going to get worse before it gets better.