Salinas growers confront labor shortageSALINAS, Calif. — Without labor to harvest them, some Salinas Valley crops were abandoned in the field this year. They never made it to the cooler, much less to retail.

Growers eager to cut those losses and attract a sufficient workforce met in Salinas Nov. 11 at a forum hosted by the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California and United Vegetable Growers Cooperative.

Labor has been an issue for years, but with production acreage more or less maxed out now and a 15% to 20% shortage — about 6,000 workers — the impacts have become harder to bear. Labor intensive crops like kale, arugula and peas are being grown in much greater volume now in the valley than a decade ago.

It’s a bigger problem here, so far, than California’s drought.

“A huge number of acres were left behind,” said Eric Schwartz, chief executive officer at United Vegetable Growers Cooperative. “I know of one grower who left 20% of his strawberries in the field this year. They’re $20,000 to $25,000 an acre to grow. That cost is in the supply chain somewhere.”

No acreage survey has been done yet to determine the extent of losses.

Attendees agreed not to discuss immigration policy at the forum, which focused on what can be done locally. They came out of it agreeing to collaborate on solving the area’s housing shortage.

“Housing is by far the biggest issue,” Schwartz said.

That was made loud and clear by Salinas’s failure to benefit from the labor availability that followed the fallowing of land around Fresno, where zero water allocations took many acres out of production in 2014.

“If we had some housing here, there would have been people coming this way,” said Rod Braga, president of Braga Fresh Family Farms. Instead, he said, workers migrated to Washington, Oregon and elsewhere.

Where money for more housing will come from is still to be determined.

Many grower-shippers, Braga said, are willing to fund housing, but would want the process of getting it built expedited.

“We know cities aren’t going to build housing,” Schwartz said. “The grower community will have to find a way to do that themselves. But the cities can help us make sure that it’s as fast as possible.”

“There are funding and grant opportunities,” said Jim Bogart, president and general counsel of the Grower-Shipper Association. “We’ll explore that with housing agencies and advocates, with county and city planners.”

One cause, or symptom, of the labor shortage is an aging workforce.

“Some of the biggest employers in the valley have an average age in the high 50s, which most people would not guess,” Schwartz said. “The generation coming after them, mom and dad don’t want working in the field.”

“Three or four years ago, overtime solved some of it,” Schwartz said. “Mechanization has helped a little. But now overtime isn’t the issue, there are just not enough hours in the week for how short the crews are. And some employees stop working when it starts costing them their state benefits. It’s a Catch 22.”