High labour costs driving fruit & veg production out of some US states

While demand for local produce in the US is growing, so too are labour costs. With higher costs, high-value fruit and vegetable production is being pushed out of states like California, Arizona and Colorado and onto farms south of the border, according to two experts who work on agricultural labour issues.

Philip Martin, professor emeritus of ag economics at the University of California-Davis, and Guadalupe (Lupe) Sandoval, executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractors Association, say the shift is already happening and likely to intensify.

Most of the recent agricultural expansion in Mexico has been financed by U.S. growers and shippers, who can produce four times the vine-ripened tomatoes there at a fraction of the cost. The two men made presentations recently on ag labour trends at the annual meeting of the Ag Relations Council.

Heavily urbanized states like California and Colorado are among the largest producers of fruit and vegetables, industry segments that are especially labour intensive. They also tend to have skyrocketing housing and transportation costs.

“Follow-the-crop migrants have almost disappeared,” Martin said. “Meanwhile, the ag-related jobs in this state are increasing, not decreasing. Agriculture has to find a way to respond to this slowdown.”

“We’re seeing the cost of labor going up even without the minimum wage going up,” Sandoval said.

Primary approaches they’ve taken so far to combat the growing labour shortage include doing more to satisfy and retain existing workers, stretching labour resources as far as possible and supplementing or substituting farm workers with mechanization.

“In terms of robotics it’s all about cost,” Martin said. “Almost any crop can be picked by machine, but is it economical?”

In places like Napa Valley wine country or the coastal areas where strawberries are grown, Sandoval said it is increasingly difficult to house farm laborers.

“Workers simply can’t afford housing where some of the more valuable crops are,” he said. “It’s also a problem getting the permits for affordable housing. Farm workers face hostility in these communities. People love their strawberries but not the workers who harvest them.”

The takeaway is that producers of high value crops will be forced to pay up, one way or another.

Read more at agjournalonline.com

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