How are you attracting and retaining the labor force you need?
Grower and shipper, Sultana, California
“We will continue doing what we’ve been doing for a long time,” said Micky George, partner in George Brothers, Inc., a fruit grower and shipper in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “And that is to provide a better place to work and establish policies that are fair and are viewed as beneficial by our employees.”
The family operation includes about 1,600 acres of peaches, plums, nectarines, table grapes, and citrus, and a commercial packing house with an annual volume of about one million boxes. About 70 percent of the fruit packed is theirs. As a service to the growers that pack with them, they provide some labor for harvesting and other orchard and vineyard chores. During peak season, they employ between 250 to 300 workers and have a year-round crew of approximately 175.
To build stability in their work force, George Brothers does something that few tree fruit growers in California do—the company provides health insurance for all its workers and dependents. Supervisors are paid at the high end of hourly rates. The company also provides free transportation for its workers to and from the orchards and vineyards. “It’s free, gratis, no charge for transportation in our licensed and certificated vehicles, with our licensed and insured drivers,” Micky George said.
Though they strive to hire their own crews, they must still supplement their workers with contract labor during peak seasonal periods. Using contract labor gives them opportunity to evaluate their labor costs and policies of their own crews. “Every year, after using contract labor, it validates our current philosophy of treating and paying workers as we do.”
Creating a stable work force, reducing job turnover, and fostering better worker productivity is beneficial, but it all has a cost, George added. “At times, it’s disheartening when it seems that the employees take the benefits for granted. But if you’re in this for the duration, then you have to see it through.”
Orchard and vineyard manager, Pasco, Washington
People like to work for innovative companies where they have opportunities to use their minds and their abilities, Kent Waliser believes. “If your company is making changes and you’re adapting to what’s going on and adopting new technologies, that invigorates the staff. I think you’re going to attract employees, and you’re going to retain employees—particularly your supervisors and managers. You have to challenge your employees, educate your employees, lead your employees, and sooner or later they will show you how to be innovative, if you let them.”
Waliser manages 800 acres of wine grapes, 200 acres of cherries, and 180 acres of apples. He has 22 full-time employees, and needs more than 300 pickers during harvest.
All of an orchardist’s resources are subject to the influences of supply and demand, and labor is just one of them, he said.
“If I have to compete with my neighbors and friends to stay in business, and that’s one more way I have to compete, so be it.”
Money is not the greatest motivating factor when employees decide where they want to work, he believes, and there’s probably not a lot of variation in wage rates industrywide. “You’re going to use all the tools you have available to compete, and money is not always the deciding factor why people stay or go.”
Waliser said he wishes it were easier for growers to provide housing. The regulations for employer-provided housing in Washington State are so demanding that many growers opt not to provide it, and workers end up living in much worse conditions than if growers could provide housing that was basic and affordable, he said.
He also thinks that if there had been a feasible guest-worker program for people from Mexico, immigration would not be the crisis it is today. Mexican workers would probably prefer to visit the United States for a time to make money, leaving their families in Mexico, and then go back home. But because it’s been difficult for illegal workers to go back and forth between Mexico and the United States, it’s encouraged more people to stay here, he believes.
Orchardist, Casnovia, Michigan
Growers in Michigan have for years provided housing for their seasonal workers, following stringent housing regulations, said Julia Hersey, who grew up in the tree fruit industry and is part of her family’s growing and packing operation of Those Hersey Brothers in Casnovia, Michigan. The family farms about 800 acres of apples, peaches, tart and sweet cherries and packs about 250,000 bushels annually.
When she was young, migrant labor came from Missouri and the Ozarks. Then the source of the labor stream moved further south to Georgia and Florida. In the 1970s, migrant labor began to come from Mexico, a trend that continues today with migrants arriving during spring to work in a variety of
fruit and vegetable crops and returning home after the harvest in the fall, she explained.
Housing is provided by nearly all growers and is viewed as insurance to ensure that workers come back year after year. At Those Hersey Brothers, they have housing in three locations to supply their seasonal workers—some 50 to 60—with a place to stay during harvest. “We’ve always had really nice facilities, which tends to attract cream of the crop, skilled workers.”
Wages paid to seasonal workers are competitive, she noted. “Workers can make up to $20 per hour on piecework. It’s hard work, but they are very skilled.”
Hersey added that several programs in the state are geared toward the migrant work force, such as summer educational programs for migrant children.
Michigan growers are working closely with their congressional officials to encourage adoption of a strong guest-worker program that fits the needs of agriculture.
“In Michigan, agriculture is the number-two industry behind the auto industry,” she said. “At the rate the car industry is headed, we know that we‘ll be the number-one industry soon.”
To date, Hersey is unaware of any Michigan grower using the H-2A guest-worker program.
“Our concern is what’s going to happen in Congress with immigration reform.”
Vineyardist, Alderdale, Washington
Paying more and finding them more work
Paul Champoux, wine grape grower located in Washington State’s Horse Heaven Hills appellation, knows that he is at a disadvantage when it comes to workers—he’s situated in a remote area some 35 miles away from the city of Prosser, Washington, and he doesn’t grow a multitude of crops to keep workers steadily employed from pruning to harvest.
“I realize how valuable skilled labor is to my operation,” he said, adding that mechanization isn’t a viable option because he is producing ultra premium grapes used in some of the state’s premier wine labels. “The return of my skilled labor is critical to the quality and efficiency of my vineyard operation.”
To attract skilled workers, he pays more than his neighbors to compensate employees for gas money and the extra time needed to drive to his vineyard. He also pays by the hour for all vineyard tasks, paying for rest breaks and lunch.
Champoux, who hires about ten workers at three different time periods to supplement his key staff of eight full-time employees, noted that nearly all come back to work year after year.
To keep his employees working longer, he looks for custom labor jobs beyond his 175 acres of wine grapes, such as planting and trellising a neighbor’s vineyard, custom harvesting for a nearby vineyard, and doing cleanup for a local park association, all which added 45 days of employment last year for his crew.
He enjoys socializing with his workers, and hosts barbeques after pruning and vine tying, as well as a big “end of harvest” party. “I know their wives and kids and have watched their children grow up. It’s a real family-oriented work place.”
Cooperative executive, Nova Scotia, Canada
As a local labor supply has dried up in Nova Scotia, growers have been looking further afield for harvest help. Bringing in workers from Jamaica seems to be the most viable solution for the near future.
Larry Lutz, vice president of agricultural services at Scotian Gold Co-operative Limited in Coldbrook, said that up until about 15 years ago, orchardists relied on local labor—people who did seasonal farm work and moved from crop to crop, or students who worked after school or at weekends.
As the number of local people willing to do farm work diminished, growers began hiring people from the nearby province of Newfoundland. The fishing industry there had collapsed, and people were searching for other jobs. Lutz said a generous unemployment program in Canada allowed them to go to Nova Scotia to work in the fall and qualify for government unemployment assistance for the rest of the year.
But a few years ago, when the government tightened its unemployment program and required a longer period of employment to qualify, that source of labor dried up also. Many of Newfoundland’s young people have been moving to Alberta, where the economy is booming, to work on oil projects.
Nova Scotia vegetable farmers began bringing in workers from the Caribbean, and for the last couple of years, Scotian Gold has brought in Jamaican workers for some of its growers under an off-shore labor program overseen by the Canadian government.
“They don’t want to displace local people, but they’re finally realizing we don’t have locals who want to do the work any more,” Lutz said.
He found the Jamaican government far easier to work with than some other countries that are sources of agricultural labor, and the workers speak English. However, it’s not a cheap program and the standards are tight. The cooperative had to pay travel expenses each way, and a portion of the workers’ earnings had to be sent back to Jamaica. Growers had to provide housing for them. The wage rate is set by the Canadian government.
“They end up costing more than the local labor do, but at least they were there every day,” Lutz commented.
Providing housing is difficult because it’s not something growers have had to do in the past. Workers from Newfoundland either brought their own campers or boarded with local people. “It’s quite a change in the way we do things,” Lutz said.
The Jamaican workers were brought in for about ten weeks over the harvest period. The typical orchard in Nova Scotia is about 70 acres, so growers can usually get jobs such as pruning done with their year-round employees.
Last year, the cooperative brought in about 12 Jamaican pickers for one grower and 10 for another. This year, more growers in the cooperative have requested Jamaican workers.
Lutz said orchardists have tried to minimize their labor needs by having workers pick off trailers, rather than ladders, but that’s not solved the labor shortage.
“We’ve basically made up our mind that off-shore labor is where we’re going to go,” Lutz said.
Orchard and nursery owner, Quincy, Washington
Diversification is the key to attracting and keeping labor, says Dena Ybarra, whose family owns Columbia Basin Nursery, which has 1,000 acres of orchard and produces a half a million nursery trees each year. The business has 90 full-time employees and needs up to 400 people at harvest. Most of the work force comes from Mexico. Employees are moved back and forth between the nursery and orchard operations.
Diversifying into different varieties so that the picking season is longer is one way to attract workers as well as reduce the total number of pickers needed, she said. At her operation, harvest lasts about ten weeks, starting in mid-August.
She tries to pay competitive wages. She does not pay a bonus to workers who stay the whole season, because she doesn’t want to penalize those pickers who only work part of the season and do a good job. She prefers to pay a fair wage so they all feel they’re getting a good deal.
Workers need to feel they’re part of the team, and Ybarra strongly encourages her regular employees to attend seminars and workshops to improve their education. “If the crew bosses and managers are more educated, they’re going to be able to share that knowledge with everybody else,” she said.
Money is not the only way to attract workers, she said. They like to work in orchards that have consistent cropping and good tonnage. Ybarra said she used to have a block in a frost pocket where she would lose half the crew every day. “You need to have large fruit, and less ladder work, and your pickers will be in picker paradise and they’ll love to stay,” she said. As she replants, she’s shifting to systems where more of the work can be done from the ground.
Smaller growers have traditionally pooled their work force, Now, larger growers are starting to do this, too, Ybarra said. She keeps in contact with some of the larger packing houses that have company orchards so if there’s a break between varieties, picking crews can come to her place and then go back, instead of scattering in search of work.
“I don’t think we can just wait for the pickers to show up, and that’s what I’m doing now,” she said.