Nearly a decade and a half ago, Good Fruit Grower staff decided to assign different themes to issues in a concerted effort to cover major topics—including those, like labor, that seldom seemed to make it to print. At the time, my personal interest was in the area of improved living and working conditions for, and better management of, farm laborers. I had lived in Mexico for a short time in my twenties, loved the culture and people, and believed American agriculture was indebted to the contribution of its largely Hispanic work force. Labor was, of course, a major expense for growers, but finding enough laborers for orchard work wasn't yet a major issue, and the topic didn't resonate with many growers.
Karen Lewis, a friend and a Washington State University Extension educator in Grant County, helped me focus on what issues were most important to the tree fruit industry, and she convinced me that there was great need to give more and better labor-relations information to growers. Although growers in general had a good track record of working closely with farmworkers and rewarding them fairly for their hard work, she could relate cases where managers had failed. She emphasized that by being better employers, both the fruit industry, and laborers and their families, would benefit. She said that by providing consistently good working conditions, growers could attract and retain both the permanent and seasonal work force they require.
She was ahead of the industry in her thinking then, and she's still right. Having a trained and reliable work force is as important as any other input to the orchard. This has always been true. It's just more believable now.
I called Karen again last month to get an update on where she thinks the industry is with labor in 2007 and her take on how things have changed since we first talked about the subject 14 years ago. She said that although getting respect likely remains a worker's most important need, financial reward has become more important than it once was. "Money does matter," she said. "It takes more money today to provide for the family, put gas in the tank, and live day to day. This ability is tied to pride and respect."
And respect at home is perhaps even more important than that on the job. "How do you get respect from your family, if you can't put food on the table?" she asked. "The respect of their families is perhaps more important than that found on the job."
Lewis explained that we are in a new age where there really is no unemployment, that workers can choose not only among different ranches, but also can choose to go into construction or other, often higher-paying trades. Today, keeping labor happy and loyal isn't as simple as giving them the respect and pay they deserve. "Growers have to be competitive and creative—creatively competitive," she emphasized, if growers hope to attract and keep good workers. And the work environment is important.
"If a grower wants to keep workers, [he/she has] to know what workers need and want," she said. But she added that growers should not ask her what workers need, but must ask their workers. "Asking will buy you loyalty," she said. If the grower isn't comfortable talking to his or her employees, or if language is a barrier, a leader in the group should be asked. "Responding to them is really important, whether you can meet their specific needs or not."
Finally, Lewis explained that growers who hope to be in business in the future will have to concentrate on building and providing an efficient workplace. Farmworkers aren't going to tolerate disorganized management that is unable to help piece workers perform at an optimum level. She explained that the tools for the job need to be available and in place, trees need to be grown and trained for ease of culture, and labor-assisting technological aids must be utilized as soon as possible.
"There are going to be winners and losers," she said. And the winners will be the growers who understand early how tenuous the farm labor situation is in the United States.
Karen Lewis has her finger on the labor issue, and she bluntly states what growers need to do to survive. It's not complicated. But it is fundamental.
In this issue of Good Fruit Grower, we cover some new ground with information on smart sprayers, housing, and family services. We also revisit what's going on with the H-2A foreign guest-worker program. As Karen says, it's not complicated stuff, but it is the kind of information that may help you survive the next 14 years.