September 26, 2013

Western farmers face labor shortages in the fields 

By Gosia Wozniacka / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Farmworkers pick paper trays of dried raisins off the ground and heap them onto a trailer in the final step of the raisin harvest this month near Fresno, Calif.

The Associated Press

On a recent September morning in an endless stretch of San Joaquin Valley vineyards, workers lifted paper trays filled with raisins and heaped them onto a trailer – the final step in an exceptionally profitable raisin harvest for the workers.

With farmworkers in such high demand, many said they shun remote locations and choose fields closer to home; they pick crops that pay better; they also prefer lighter work instead of tougher jobs that require being bent over all day. More women are also in the fields.

Because most workers now have smartphones, they text each other information about pay and working conditions – and some switch employers mid-way through harvest if better opportunities arise.

As a result, labor contractors and growers must work harder to fill and retain work crews. Cisneros said he even trained and hired high school students this summer to pick grapes – something he was not willing to do in the past.

Growers like Carson Smith, in turn, have raised wages by 20 percent over the past two years. The wine grape grower, who farms 800 acres near Fresno, said his biggest competition for workers is from table grape growers who are also raising wages for their pickers.

"The fear of a shortage drove us to increase pay," said Smith, who paid his machine drivers $12.75 per hour, $2 more than previous years. "We set our wages to where we thought we could attract people, though it was still tougher than other years to fill our positions."

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