Uncertain economic times may present unexpected opportunities for agriculture. For instance, reduced jobs in construction have permitted some people in that industry to try their hand at agriculture. I had the opportunity to interview three such individuals last week.

They have been picking cherries and are discouraged. One day the fastest picker in their team averaged $24/hour. But other days have not been as rewarding. At times they have struggled to make minimum wage. These men work through a Farm Labor Contractor (FLC), but the difficulty in question is not merely one faced by FLCs: the price per box picked is the same, regardless of the cherry load.

Farm employers often speak of the many challenges associated with piece-rate (which is usually the most rational way to pay harvest crew workers when properly designed). “Should we have the crews start picking the most difficult trees or the hardest ones?” When the question is put this way, there is no easy answer. Workers will bolt before giving the job a chance if they begin with the hardest trees. And if they begin with the easiest ones, as our three construction workers, they are disappointed at continually vanishing potential earnings.

The right answer, then, requires re-asking the question. “How do we establish a fair piece-rate so that workers are not punished and demotivated by trees with little fruit?”

The answer is simple (implementation takes a little work, especially at the beginning, but the results are well worthwhile): workers should earn thesame forequivalent amounts of effort. A worker who gives it his or her all should make the same regardless of whether the tree is loaded with fruit or this is the second pass to catch fruit that was too unripe to pick the first time.

Crew workers perform best when paid for their effort. After all, most pickers have no control over fruit yields. They should not be punished or rewarded by differences in crop load. Every block of trees, then, should have their own piece-rate value. These values need to be set before the work is commenced.

Once the farm employer determines what he or she is willing to pay for the job, then, the idea behind consistent pay for consistent effort, rather than pay determined by luck (trees that are loaded with fruit vs. trees that have very little fruit) makes sense. So it is that one employee’s best efforts may yield her $27 per hour, for instance, while another’s best efforts may yield him only $10 per hour. As long as both are putting forth their best efforts in a consistent manner, they should continue to earn about $27 and $10 respectively, even when fruit load may vary considerably.

For psychological reasons, the easiest trees to harvest (for instance trees that are loaded with fruit and require no ladders) should be paid at 100 percent of the piece rate. As the difficulty increases, so should the percentage of the piece rate.

For instance, if the base piece-rate pay is $6 per box (this figure is given strictly for illustrative purposes), then the very easiest trees to pick should be paid at $6/box ($6 x 100 percent). If picking is considered 40 percent more difficult, then the price ought to be $8.4/box ($6 x 140 percent). If twice as hard, $12/box ($6 x 200 percent), and so on.

For more detailed information on establishing effective piece rates, see http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7research/7calag06.htm, or contact Gregorio Billikopf at gebillikopf@ucdavis.edu or (209) 525-6800.