(April 26 – REPOST; INCLUDES ADDITIONAL COVERAGE) SALINAS, Calif. — With the rising cost of just about everything related to doing business in Monterey County, some grower-shippers are looking at the possibility of moving part or even all of their operations out of the area.

While a mass exodus in the near future appears unlikely, some produce industry veterans have expressed concern about everything from the aging work force to the lack of affordable housing to the possibility of being zoned out of the ability to expand their facilities should the need arise.

“I don’t think it can’t happen,” said Lorri Koster, co-chairwoman of Mann Packing Co. “We need incentive to stay here.”

Koster said her company has been looking deeper into Central and South America to grow and pack produce. Or, she said, maybe they’ll just drive over to the San Joaquin Valley.

“Imagine if 5% of value-added processing pulled out of here, and the jobs were in Los Banos or Merced,” she said. “We can put it in refrigerated trucks and haul it anywhere.”

As the cost of oil continues to skyrocket, so too does everything related to crude, including pesticides, fertilizers and plastics. Add to this, the testing of water, soil, raw and processed produce, workers (for compliance with sanitation regulations) and facilities — all of which are directly related to the September E. coli outbreak — and the price tag continues to climb into the millions of dollars.

Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc., Monterey, and Taylor Farms have announced price increases to pay for rising food safety costs.

And then there is the general plan, or GPU4, coming up for vote June 5.

GPU4, which is being challenged by LandWatch, an environmental organization with its own initiative also on the ballot, will determine how and where the county can grow for up to 25 years.

Tom Russell, president of Pacific International Marketing, said he supports GPU4 and has harsh criticism for the LandWatch initiative.

Koster said if the LandWatch initiative were to triumph over GPU4, growers would not be able to expand facilities on their own land without prior approval from all registered voters in the county.

“Farming in Salinas Valley has not been hugely profitable in the last several years. It has been a challenge,” said Rick Russo, vice president for crop management for Tanimura & Antle Inc. “Costs continue to increase, and relative prices have not increased over the last 10 years.”

He said growing costs have been creeping up 2% to 3% a year for the past several years.

“It isn’t unthinkable that the size of (growing operations) the Salinas Valley could decline in future years,” he said.

Russo said it’s all about economics. He said the company has been talking to regional suppliers and has been involved in experimental projects in Mexico. While lawmakers in Washington, D.C., debate the merits of a guest worker program, Salinas is faced with an entirely different problem.

“We have a labor force that stays put pretty much in this area,” said John Baillie, owner of Baillie Family Farms/Tri-Counties Packing Co., Spreckels. “The work force is getting older, and we’re looking at a crisis in another 10 years because, along with immigration, we’re losing a work force due to age.”