H-SANTA MARIA

Jul 29, 2013 7:19 PM by April Hansen, KSBY News

Local growers face labor shortage

Farmers on the Central Coast are in the middle of a critical labor shortage and they say they're losing crops and millions of dollars in sales.

The strawberry and lettuce growers are the hardest hit.

This labor shortage has been a problem for the past couple of years.

Agriculture officials say it is getting worse. The labor force is down 20 to 25 percent.

They need about 1,700 more workers to finish harvest this season, so that means some local farmers have to turn their backs on some of their crops because they don't have enough workers to harvest them.

A top local strawberry grower says he needs hundreds of more workers just to keep up.

"We just turned our back on this little piece of land here," said Daren Gee, owner of Daren's Berries.

Ten acres of fresh, red strawberries is gold for farmer Daren Gee, but without hands to pick and box them, he has no choice but to abandon them until next year's harvest.

"We are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars that's lost in this whole deal. I'm just one small guy. There's a lot of people out there not only in Santa Maria, but all over the state of California," said Gee.

Gee has eliminated 35 of his 390 acres of strawberry fields this season.

He says the solution is to hire 200 more workers, but it's not easy.

"There are fewer people in Mexico who are looking for opportunities in the United States," said Claire Wineman, president of the Grower and Shipper Association.

Wineman says there's many reasons for the labor shortage.

"One of them is increasing border controls between Mexico and the United States, but there are other bigger picture factors such as the improving economic conditions in Mexico and also changing demographics in Mexico," said Wineman.

She says part of the solution is immigration reform because right now there are not enough visas to fill the demand.

"Having enough guest worker visas, making sure the wage rates are competitive between our domestic and foreign workers, guest workers and also making sure there are enough people working enough days in agriculture," said Wineman.

Gee says until his worker numbers are at full force, thousands of strawberries won't be picked and will be left to rot.

Wineman says farmers have lost about $4.4 million due to delays and unharvested crops in the past year already.

She says there is little technology right now that farmers can turn to. However, she says there are certain picking techniques that farmers have adopted to quicken the process.

Harvesters are paid between $10 and $11 per hour, which is above the minimum wage of $8 in California.

Information about harvest jobs: http://www.growershipper.com/

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