Tighter border security and heightened political wrangling over immigration reform are taking their toll on the California summer harvest labor supply.
California tree fruit and grape growers are moving into the peak harvest labor period with a workforce that has been chronically short 20 percent to 40 percent from last year, according to Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League.
The only thing that has saved growers from leaving fruit on the tree and vines is that the tree fruit and grape crops have been much lighter this season.
“We’ve been getting by with a significantly lower labor supply because the crops have been considerable smaller,” said Bedwel,l who heads an organization that represents more than 85 percent of the volume of fresh market table grapes and deciduous tree fruit grown in California. “For example, last year’s table grape crop was 96 million boxes. This year it is projected to be 80 million.”
Bedwell added growers are reporting that workers available this season are not as skilled as those in past seasons.
This is the peak labor demand period because raisin harvest is at hand and it requires an estimated 40,000 workers to harvest green grapes and lay them on the ground to dry and to gather as raisins about two weeks after they are laid. Raisins alone take almost 10 percent of the estimated 450,000 people it requires to harvest California crops during the spring and summer.
“September is the peak labor demand month because it is when everything is being harvested; raisins, wine grapes, the end of the tree fruit season,” said Bedwell.
The shortage of labor could have its greatest impact in the raisin harvest, but Bedwell noted that the Thompson crop is off significantly and that may be the saving grace in finding enough people to lay the raisins to dry. The crop is also earlier than last year and that could mean more harvest days ahead of the rain insurance cutoff date to dry the grapes into raisins.
This year’s raisin crop is projected to be from 230,000 tons to 280,000 tons. On a green weight basis, this is almost 1.3 million green tons of grapes.
With chronic, annual labor shortages over the past few seasons, increasingly more raisin growers are re-trellising or establishing new vineyards to allow for grapes to be dried into raisins on the vine and gathered mechanically.
Last year, 20 percent of the raisin crop was produced that way. This year, as much as 30 percent of the raisin crop could be dried on the vine and gathered mechanically, according to industry experts.