ORLAND, Calif. — As farm labor shortages persist, California’s top agriculture official says policymakers and California growers should take more steps to shore up the agricultural workforce.
While noting that many public and private investments have been made in technology, state Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross believes spending should be increased for recruiting and training new workers, she told a conference on Nov. 8.
For instance, the community college system could be useful in “training up the existing workforce” in new skills, Ross said during the second annual North State Innovations in Agriculture conference at the Glenn County Fairgrounds.
But while labor, regulations and other issues present a challenge for California agriculture, Ross said she still believes the industry can remain successful.
“I am very optimistic about the future of California agriculture,” she said. “What we grow is in demand. There’s no doubt we have a lot of work to do to convince young people about all the career opportunities in agriculture. We have to make agriculture cool.”
Ross addressed the state’s labor challenges amid a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with roughly 75 attendees of the conference, which was started last year to educate Northern California growers about technological advancements in the industry.
The secretary took several questions related to labor as a California Farm Bureau Federation survey this summer found that 55 percent of the 762 respondents had employee shortages and 69 percent of farmers who hired seasonal workers faced shortages.
Problems are more acute among farmers whose crops require the most intensive hand labor such as tree fruit and grapes, the survey found. The findings were consistent with those of a similar survey conducted by the Farm Bureau in 2012.
“I’m not really optimistic” about the foreign labor picture improving, Ross told her audience. She said the industry will need to get creative to bring new people in, such as employers offering more internships and apprenticeships to train younger workers.
She noted the rising popularity of university agriculture programs such as the one at California State University-Chico, whose enrollment has more than doubled in the last decade. Chico State offers four undergraduate degrees and an online master’s degree and includes the 800-acre university farm, which employs a manager and 15 full-time employees and has up to 40 student workers.
“It’s bursting at the seams,” Ross said of the program.
On other issues:
• Asked what the CDFA could do to ease the regulatory burden on farmers, Ross said she works with agencies such as the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Fish and Wildlife to bring an agricultural perspective early in the process as the agencies draft new rules.
“One of the things we’ve done is create a position to interact with other agencies” as a liaison, she said.
However, “I will tell you that the continued push on water quality is not going to ease,” she said. The state water board has placed more scrutiny on nitrates in groundwater in recent years as a University of California-Davis study in 2012 found that nitrate contamination in drinking water was a pervasive problem.
Ross said the scrutiny will persist as long as the state must keep trucking in fresh water to some rural communities whose groundwater is too contaminated to drink.
• Ross said the legalization of non-medical uses of cannabis beginning Jan. 1 likely won’t eliminate the illicit pot market, at least right away. She said there is “very big money” being invested in sophisticated indoor growing operations in urban areas, but the permits and requirements to sell pot legally may be cost-prohibitive to small growers.
“It’s going to be difficult for that third-generation grower on the north coast who wants to come out from the shadows,” Ross said.
The CDFA and four other agencies are tasked with licensing and regulating marijuana, with the group’s $57.2 million budget funded by cultivation taxes and license fees. The CDFA’s role will include issuing the licenses and developing a program to track the movement of medical marijuana through the distribution chain, according to a state budget summary.
• Ross told the Capital Press she hasn’t heard complaints from growers over the state gasoline and diesel tax increases that took effect Nov. 1, although farm groups opposed the increases.
Lawmakers last spring approved Gov. Jerry Brown’s more than $5 billion-a-year plan to fund major road repairs, which will hike vehicle registration fees while raising gas taxes by 12 cents a gallon and increasing diesel sales taxes from 16 cents to 36 cents per gallon.
Western Growers president and chief executive officer Tom Nassif argued in April the tax increases will add to the “staggering regulatory burdens and costs placed on California farmers” that “have already placed our industry at a competitive disadvantage relative to other states” and countries.
Ross noted that state law allows for a refund of paid gasoline taxes if the fuel is used for certain “off-highway” uses, including farming. She said unclaimed gas tax rebates for agriculture are allocated to the CDFA for programs for farmers and ranchers.