The tourniquet wrapped around shrinking supplies of available field workers for winter vegetable production will grip even tighter in the future in Arizona's Yuma Valley.
“We're in a fairly bleak picture here for the future,” said Kurt Nolte, area associate Extension agent for the University of Arizona (UA) Cooperative Extension in Yuma County, Ariz. “We believe there will be a significant labor shortage for years to come.”
The dismal projection is based on just released survey results shared by Nolte during a preseason vegetable workshop held in Yuma in late August. Survey results suggested that 50,000 workers are needed daily in the area's winter vegetable industry.
Overall, the purpose of the UA survey was to ask farm workers how field labor retention could be improved in Arizona.
The study, funded through the Western Center for Risk Management Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will provide support for the development of a strategic labor plan to help reduce risks to growers caused by reduced labor availability.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, the (vegetable) industry in the Yuma Valley has reached a peak and we're now faced with the lack of a stable workforce,” Nolte said. “We wanted to figure out why that is and what can be done in the short term to alleviate the problem. To paint the picture, it's kind of bleak.”
Three hundred field workers, men and women living in the U.S. and Mexico, working in Yuma Valley vegetable fields, were asked 60 questions each during 15 to 20 minute random interviews. The testing pool was strictly limited to field workers. Employees of almost every labor contractor in Yuma were interviewed.
Nolte and UA Yuma Agricultural Center vegetable specialist Jorge Fonseca wrote the grant request searching for Yuma-specific farm labor information. The UA's Bianca Muñoz conducted the interviews from November 2006 to March 2007.
Among the survey result compilation — the median age of field workers in the Yuma Valley is 45, fewer young people are interested in field work, and those living in Mexico are more willing to work in farm fields versus U.S. based workers.
Perhaps the most surprising finding was based on the question, “How can the field work environment be improved?” Instead of asking for more pay or benefits, the number one answer was additional work breaks.
“When the average field worker is 45, they are older and need a little more time off. We're not working with a younger crowd. These folks, apparently, need more time to recover.”
According to 2000 U.S. Department of Labor farm labor statistics, 79 percent of workers in the nation are male. Yet the Yuma survey demonstrated a 60 percent male field worker force and 40 percent women.
Sixty percent of Yuma Valley field workers live in the U.S., mostly in San Luis, Ariz. About 40 percent live in Mexico and cross the border daily.
Survey results also hinted that 50,000 farm workers are required daily in winter vegetable fields. Marital statistics showed 60 percent are married.
“Field workers are family people who are hard working folks — no different from you and I,” Nolte said. “We have data that supports that they don't want to move. The workers living in the U.S. want to live and work here. Those who live in Mexico who work in Yuma fields want to go home every night.”
Field workers were less educated with elementary school as the highest level of education for 60 percent of those surveyed. Less than 30 percent had completed middle school.
There's some thought that agriculture is losing workers due to the construction trade. That's really not the case, Nolte said. Those working in the field may not have the necessary skill sets for construction work.
Men generally start field work at an earlier age than women. Once working, women tend to stay in the field while men waiver once they get older.
On income, most interviewed workers earned less than $10,000 for six months work. Men and women desired increased pay.
Nolte thought the survey could yield interest in creating a more flexible schedule for Mexico-based workers who cross the border in the wee hours to work in fields.
“Some workers wake up at 2 a.m. in the morning and get in line at the border which can take two hours to cross. Mexican workers in the Yuma Valley did not complain about that. I was pretty surprised,” Nolte said.
Men desired more breaks and women needed fewer. Women wanted more job benefits while men didn't require as many.
When workers were asked if they would recommend field work to others, the results were a resounding no. Yet, a difference was noted between those living in the U.S. versus Mexico. U.S. workers said no, but fewer Mexico-based workers said no. More recruitment possibilities may exist within Mexico.
“We need to be more progressive in our pressure to allow more folks to come across the border because we will not see as much labor coming from the U.S. as Mexico,” Nolte surmised. “Our only real source of future workers in our opinion will be those coming from Mexico.”
Men and women alike had few problems with working in the field. Nolte thinks that number could change in a 2008 survey planned in Yuma County's Dome Valley and the county's east side.
How many years do workers have left working in the field? Workers from Mexico said six to 10 years more, while those in San Luis wanted to work less.
The question was asked, “If you don't like what you do, what else would you like to do with your skills?” Very few believed they had the necessary skill set to offer another employer.
“We're trying to wrap our arms around this enormous data set,” Nolte said. “With this survey, data now exists from men and women living everywhere — from San Luis and Somerton, Ariz., to Mexico, and in California. We can analyze a cross section of questions on just women, or people just from Mexico.”
When the Dome Valley/eastern Yuma County survey is completed next year, Yuma Cooperative Extension will publish all the data and create a report for possible sharing with decision makers in Washington D.C.
Others who assisted in the survey included the UA's Ramiro Galvez, Manuel Peralta, and Jon Dinsmore.