California citrus growers are currently still packing Navel oranges and Valencias. Pablo Mercado of Citrus Plus says: “We’ll pack the Navels until May or June, and then we’ll still have plenty of Valencia orange supplies too.” The California citrus industry saw a price bump in the markets due to the pandemic but are experiencing significant labor issues that are making it difficult to supply the demand.
Before the COVID-19 crisis began, the demand for the oranges was good, though the prices were low. After the crisis began, the prices became more solid, says Mercado. “We are seeing okay pricing at the moment. Right now the issue is that there are no pickers available.”
Contracted laborers are hard to find
The citrus industry in California uses contracted labor nowadays, and Mercado shares that they’ve been having trouble with labor shortages for a while now. “Back in the 70s and 80s, growers would have their own picking crews, but now all the labor is contracted. The pickers will easily move to another orchard if they can get a higher pay there, so it is difficult to hold on to them.” To add to this, most of the professional pickers are older, and there are not many young pickers to replace them once they retire. This had led to a shrinking number of available pickers each year.
Bringing in foreign laborers is also not ideal, according to Mercado: “The foreign workers need special permits, and there are so many regulations. We have to provide their housing, and have to keep a close eye on the hours they work, the breaks they take, etc. It’s so much paperwork, and then on top of that they aren’t professional pickers, so the work gets done much slower. In the end, it’s cheaper and more efficient to work with the professional domestic pickers,” he says.
Insufficient inventories to supply the demand
Right now, due to the pandemic, the labor issue has been intensified. “People are staying at home more and are not risking coming to work. It should be safe for the pickers – they have their own stations that they pick in and can easily keep their distance – but we can’t force them to come in to pick.”
All of these issues have the result that there isn’t enough inventory to cover the demand of the industry. “The groves have orange carpets from the amount of fruit that is lost and falls to the ground. We have plenty of product on the trees, but we can’t get it harvested,” Mercado says. “The prices in the FOB market have been pretty solid, which is good, but since there’s not enough product to move, it is still a difficult time for the citrus growers,” he concludes.