Worsening labor shortage poses financial challenge to East Contra Costa County farmers — and consumers
DISCOVERY BAY — Barbara Cecchini’s asparagus fields tell the story of what can happen when bounty and scarcity collide.
At one time the Discovery Bay farmer and her husband cultivated about 1,200 acres of the vegetable and were among the biggest asparagus growers in the state.
But the amount of land they allotted for the crop has shrunk drastically over the past decade until Cecchini, the last asparagus farmer in Contra Costa County, has just 15 acres left.
“We needed bodies,” she said of the dwindling supply of workers available to hand pick the labor-intensive crop.
The harvesting machines that exist aren’t designed to accommodate the mounds in which asparagus traditionally are planted in California, and farm hands must revisit the fields daily looking for spears tall enough to harvest because they reach the optimum height at different times.
As the trend continued, Cecchini began digging up the perennials and replacing them with hay, wheat, safflower and other crops she could harvest mechanically.
Her experience illustrates the effects of a statewide farm labor shortage, one that Oakley grower Mark Dwelley says has been getting worse.
He relies on manual labor to harvest his vegetables, and last year he lost some beans because he couldn’t round up enough help to get them to market.
“Everyone is very, very nervous,” he said of farmers everywhere.
It’s a complex problem that Dwelley Farms and other local businesses are experiencing, one that they attribute to a variety of factors.
Growers already were facing smaller profit margins following the elimination of tariffs on produce imported from Mexico, but Cecchini says the real trouble began when the federal government began cracking down on illegal immigration in the 1990s.
Tens of thousands of Mexicans who once came to California to work now are being deported or can’t leave home.
“It’s not nearly as easy to get a work visa, so people that have had a temporary visa and have gone back to Mexico, it’s very difficult for them to get back legally,” said Glenn Stonebarger of G&S Farms.
He grows corn and beans as well as cherries, apples and pluots, all of them hand-harvested.
And Cecchini needed about 150 people in the fields cutting asparagus spears and 100 or so more in the packing sheds at the height of production, a level of manpower that eventually became impossible to find.
Growers aren’t likely to find help from the domestic labor force, either.
“Americans will not work in the fields,” said Al Courchesne of Brentwood’s Frog Hollow Farms.
But immigration policy isn’t the only explanation for the diminishing labor pool.
The workforce is aging as members of the younger generation are opting for higher-paying jobs in construction when the housing market is booming, Stonebarger said.
Those who once might have worked locally now are going to areas like Napa and Sonoma where vineyard owners pay more, Cecchini added.
Local growers also are competing for workers with their counterparts in the Central Valley, where there’s a shortage as well, said Janet Caprile, farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Contra Costa County.
Seasonal farm workers who live in the Stockton and Modesto areas are less inclined to make the drive to East County when they can find work closer to home, she said.
Francisco Gomez works in the asparagus field at Cecchini & Cecchini Farms near Discovery Bay, Calif. on Thursday, May 18, 2017. The Cecchinis are the last asparagus farmers in Contra Costa County and over the past decade their crop has dwindled from about 1,000 acres to just 15. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)
Brentwood grower Tom Bloomfield pays his contract laborers $1 to $1.50 over the $10 hourly minimum wage required of small employers, an incentive intended to cover the additional time and expense they incur in traveling to his farms.
When crops are ready to harvest, there’s no time to waste — farmers need those extra sets of hands right then, said Bloomfield, who hires up to five dozen people to work the 300 or so acres of vineyards he cultivates.
Stonebarger can attest to the challenge of rounding up help: By the time cherry season began in East County this spring, crews already were picking orchards in the San Joaquin Valley.
“When there’s a full crop (in that area), there’s just not enough people to draw from,” he said, noting that workers are drawn to regions where the harvest is bountiful because they are paid according to how much fruit they pick.
In addition to the dozen full-time employees Stonebarger has, he needs about 120 to 140 seasonal workers from May through September to harvest not only cherries but green beans and sweet corn, his biggest crop.
Although operating some of his cherry orchards as a U-Pick business mitigates the problem, he doesn’t get enough customers to collect all the fruit so he still needs additional help to get it to market, Stonebarger said.
Mechanization also can make the difference between experiencing a labor crunch or not.
Bloomfield says he is largely unaffected by the shortage in part because he uses swathers, rakes and balers to harvest alfalfa and other machines to pick his grapes, although he still needs people to prune old wood on vines as well as thin leaves and shoots.
The challenges farmers are facing might not be their problem alone.
In keeping with the law of supply and demand, labor contractors are charging growers more these days for the crews they provide, Cecchini said.
Farmers, in turn, pass that added cost on to the consumer.
“The commodities here are going to get more expensive,” she said. “I can’t sell my asparagus for less than $4 a pound to the public and make any money.”
Shoppers who buy imported food when it’s in-season locally save money because it’s cheaper to produce, but other countries’ more lenient regulations governing practices such as pesticide use and cleanliness of irrigation water could pose health risks, Cecchini said.
“There’s nobody really checking them,” she said.