Sure, the drought is a huge issue. But even if we get enough water to grow all the acres we want, we still won’t have the labor to harvest all those crops.
That’s the view of Vic Smith of JV Smith Companies, who completed his one-year term as chairman of the board of Western Growers at the group’s Annual Meeting in San Diego in early November. As is traditionally the case, Smith spoke of his year at the helm during the “Major Lunch” held on Tuesday, Nov. 10. He noted some of the successes that the association achieved during the past year, but focused much of his talk on what he called “the most pressing issue we face — labor…or specifically the lack of it.”
Smith believes Western Growers the association, as well as western growers the businesses, need to be much more actively involved in securing workers through the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A program. He revealed that about 140,000 H-2A workers were certified in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2015. Only 9 percent of those workers, who are brought into the United States on a temporary work visa basis from foreign countries, were for applications from California and Arizona. He said farm employers from the southeast states of Georgia, North Carolina and Florida were much more active with contracts covering about 50,000 workers representing 36 percent of the total. California and Arizona, he said, produce 50 percent of U.S. fruit and vegetable output but only had 9 percent of the foreign workers. “We are going to have to pay more attention, do a better job and get much better results.”
He advocated that Western Growers begin taking a major role in securing H-2A workers because Smith said if the western industry continues on its current path, “we are going straight over a cliff.”
The longtime Yuma area grower acknowledged that the H-2A program is difficult to navigate and presents the industry with several challenges, including providing the type of housing these workers deserve. But he said other employers across the country have done a much better job utilizing this government program and he opined that California and Arizona do not have any other options.
Smith calculated that on average, the two states need about 417,000 farmworkers and there is a chronic 10 to 20 percent shortage. If all those slots were filled through H-2A applications that would mean an additional 40,000 to 80,000 workers. He knows that DOL already is overrun by applications, which severely bog down the approval process, and lead to serious delays. But Smith clearly believes the industry should apply for these workers and make the government do its part on the approval side of the ledger. He noted that immigration reform appears to have no chance of passing in the near future to help alleviate the labor shortage problem.
During his speech, Smith did point to several major accomplishments that occurred under his watch, including new leadership for Western Growers Insurance Services, WG taking an active role in helping to formulate National Organic Program standards, and the great strides taken in the technology realm. Western Growers participated in a “Thrive Accelerator” program to identify potential technological solutions to industry issues, and also moved ahead with the development of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. Housed in downtown Salinas and staffed by Western Growers, this center is slated to open December 10 and will have a solid representation of innovative companies as tenants. Smith said the idea is to bring technology innovators and production agriculture face to face to work together on industry issues that have a technological solution.
He also pointed to the establishment of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Colorado fruit and vegetable growers as a highlight of his year in office. Smith was born in Colorado and still farms there on a seasonal basis. The MOU has established a formal relationship between the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Association and Western Growers, in which WG provides government affairs representation on the federal level. Members of that Colorado association also have access to several WG programs, including many insurance products that Western Growers Insurance Services provides.