The San Joaquin Valley is the agricultural powerhouse of the United States and California. California accounts for an eighth of U.S. farm sales, largely because it produces high value fruit and nut, vegetable and melon, and horticultural specialty (FVH) crops such as nursery products and flowers. Over three-fourths of the state's $37 billion in farm sales in 2010 were crop commodities, and almost 90 percent of the $28 billion in California crop sales represented labor-intensive FVH commodities.
About half of California's farm sales and farm employment are produced in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley with four million residents that stretches from Stockton in the north to Bakersfield in the south. The leading U.S. farm county is Fresno, which had farm sales of almost $6 billion in 2010.
In summer 2014, three major farm labor trends stand out: few labor shortages, many labor-saving changes, and segmenting farm labor contractors (FLCs.)
First, there were few reports of farm labor shortages. Many employers spoke of labor shortages in 2012, but few key informants in major farming areas in 2014 reported labor shortages. The Napa-Sonoma area and the Salinas valley, where living costs are high, may be an exception. Napa vineyards that do not provide housing pay a $10 an acre assessment that is used to subsidize three farm worker centers with 180 beds. Napa county, which has almost 800 wineries that produce about 50 million cases of wine a year, experienced a 6.0 earthquake on August 24, 2014 that destroyed some wine in storage.
Most employers pay the California's minimum wage of $9 an hour since July 1, 2014 or up to $1 more, and many harvest jobs pay a straight piece rate, such as $20 for picking a 1,000 bin of fruit, or a combination of an hourly wage and a piece rate incentive, such as $9.25 an hour plus $0.33 to pick and pack a 19-pound box of table grapes (three workers share the $0.33, so if the "trio" picks 10 boxes an hour, they each get an extra $1.10, making their earnings $10.35 an hour).
Second, there are major labor-saving changes underway. The most important is crop changes, away from lower-value and labor-intensive crops such as cling or canning peaches to almonds and walnuts that are mechanically harvested; there is also mechanization in previously labor-intensive crops such as raisin grapes. The commodity employing the most seasonal farm workers has changed from raisin grapes to strawberries, whose 40,000 acres typically require 1.5 to two workers per acre to pick each field multiple times.
Many crops that had shorter seasons in the past today have longer seasons because of new varieties that can be harvested over more weeks, and varieties that promote more uniform ripening so that workers must make fewer passes through fields that are picked several times. These changes may not reduce the demand for harvest workers, but they do reduce migrancy and allow workers to do more hours of work in one place with one farm employer.
Third, the farm labor contractors who bring over half of all workers to California crop farms appear to be segmenting. At the top are some large FLCs that hire several thousand workers, have professional managers to supervise crew bosses, and announce overhead rates to farmers and refuse to cut them. Farmers who use these "good" FLCs pay commissions of 30 percent or more above the $9 or $9.25 wage paid to workers, and in exchange get insurance that the FLC will not violate laws and the grower will not be found jointly liable for labor law, immigration, tax and other violations.
At the other end of the FLC spectrum are often smaller FLCs who are willing to work for much lower and sometimes money-losing commissions and survive by paying some workers in cash and thus saving required payroll taxes, among other things.
All FLCs rely on crew bosses to recruit and supervise a crew of 20 to 60 workers, depending on the crop. Most crew bosses have assistants, often their relatives, to help them to recruit and monitor workers. Work crews often include members of the same family, which can facilitate recruitment and car-pooling but can also lead to uneven productivity, since getting the "good" workers in an extended family may also require accepting less productive workers.
Monterey county ($4.1 billion in farm sales in 2012), is number four in farm sales, followed by more San Joaquin Valley counties: Merced and Stanislaus, $3.3 billion each in farm sales in 2012; San Joaquin, $2.8 billion; Kings, $2.2 billion; and Madera, $1.7 billion. To put these county-level farm sales in perspective, New York in 2012 had total farm sales of $5.4 billion, less than the farm sales of Fresno, Kern or Tulare counties.
Fresno county had farm sales of $6.4 billion in 2013, including $3.2 billion or half from fruits and nuts, led by $1.1 billion from almonds and $1 billion from the three major types of grapes: raisin, table and wine. Almond yields averaged 1.2 tons an acre worth $5,200 a ton or $6,500 an acre.
Over half of the 105,000 bearing acres of grapes in Kern county were table grapes, and there were almost 150,000 acres of almonds. Kern's 59,000 acres of table grapes yielded an average 13.6 tons an acre in 2013, or almost 800,000 tons for an average gross revenue per acre of $24,400. Almonds yielded an average 1.1 tons generated $6,300 an acre. Blueberries yielded an average 6.7 tons an acre and, at grower prices of over $2 a pound, gross revenues were over $30,000 an acre.
Tulare displaced Fresno as the number one ag county in 2013, with farm sales of $7.8 billion, including $2.1 billion or 27 percent from milk and $4 billion from fruits and nuts. The largest acreage fruit is navel oranges, with 77,000 acres in Tulare county producing an average 15.5 tons an acre and worth a total $695 million. By value, the leading FVH commodity was all grapes worth almost $1 billion, but Tulare's 35,000 acres of table grapes producing almost 17 tons an acre and worth $0.75 a pound or $24,000 an acre accounted for over three-fourths of grape sales.
Sutter county had farm sales of $525 million in 2012, and the leading commodities were rice, walnuts, plums, and peaches. Sutter county has 7,100 acres of cling peaches, most of which are canned, and most are picked by hand. Yields average about 20 tons an acre, and growers received $379 a ton in 2014 or $7,500 an acre. The 26,000 acres of walnuts averaged 1.6 tons an acre worth $2,700 a ton or $4,400 an acre, but walnuts are far less labor-intensive. The leading field crop was rice, where 115,000 acres yielded an average four tons an acre worth $350 a ton or $1,400 an acre.
This post was an excerpt of the most recent Rural Migration News published in October 2014.
Rural Migration News summarizes the most important migration-related issues affecting agriculture and rural America. Topics are grouped by category: Rural America, Farm Workers, Immigration, Other and Resources.
There are two editions of Rural Migration News. The paper edition has about 10,000 words and the email version about 20,000 words.
The paper edition is available by mail for $30 domestic and $50 foreign for one year and $55 and $95 for a two-year subscription. Make checks payable to Migration Dialogue and send to: Philip Martin, Department of Ag and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, California 95616 USA.
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