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Short supply of field workers a major concern for fig growers

It is an inescapable irony that in the state of California, with unemployment at 9.2 percent (higher than all but two other states in the nation according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), agricultural employees should be faced with a labor shortage.

But growers of many commodities throughout the state, including figs, are expressing concerns that they may have difficulty this year finding enough help at harvest time to bring in their crops, and because of the labor shortage, 06-Figs-LaborCalifornia growers are concerned that they may have difficulty finding enough help to bring in their crops.many are having to pay more for the help they do get.

Labor availability was a topic of discussion at a meeting of the California Fresh Fig Growers Association in early May, according to Karla Stockli, chief executive officer of the association and its sister organization, the California Fig Advisory Board in Fresno, CA.

"It is a concern," she said. "We have gotten some of the labor that has worked in the fig industry consistently for years, and we that we expect to return. But some people are going to go where they get paid more, so if there is competition with some of the other crops that are going to pay more, it becomes a little bit of a bidding war for that labor. Since labor is going to be a little less available, labor is going to cost the growers more."

That is just one of several increases in overhead costs growers are facing this year, along with higher water costs and higher costs of packing materials.

George Kragie, president of Western Fresh Marketing in Madera, CA, concurred that "the declining labor force" is a concern and is leading to higher labor costs. That, along with such things as increasing carton costs and "increases in things like health and safety," are going to make 2013 "a challenging year" for fig growers, he said.

Noting that labor is a major component in the cost of growing figs, equivalent to all other costs combined, Marc Marchini, sales and marketing manager for figs at J. Marchini Farms in Le Grand, CA, told The Produce News that whatever field workers growers are able to hire this year "will cost them 15 to 20 percent more than they paid last season."

Some growers are taking figs out and replacing them with other high-value, high-demand crops such as tree nuts that are less labor intensive, he said.