Delayed harvest may result in discounts from processors
By TIM HEARDEN
CORNING, Calif. -- The shortage of farm labor in the West is hampering the harvest of table olives in California's Central Valley.
Growers report the picking of olives has been slow as they've had trouble finding full crews or keeping workers from rushing off to other jobs.
"It's just very frustrating because we're the ones taking it in the shorts," said Scott Patton, an olive producer and store owner here. "The grape harvest is having just as much of a problem as we are.
"Guys are jumping from one crew to the next crew thinking they're getting a better deal, then you lose a crew for a while and then they come back because they realize it's just as good as where they were," he said. "People are walking off saying they won't pick unless they get so much. Farmers are paying a lot more per ton for picking."
Another grower reported a contractor failed to show up for the start of harvest Oct. 1 and he was becoming concerned about overmature fruit, which brings a deduction from the processor, said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council of California in Visalia.
"We're extremely short on labor right now," Hester said. "We don't have full crews, so we're working with partial crews right now."
The labor shortage comes as growers are trying to harvest a 180,000-ton olive crop in California, which is up from last year's 71,200 tons produced, according to state and federal agriculture officials.
This year's crop would have been even better had it not been for some wide fluctuations in springtime temperatures that hindered the crop's development, Hester said. For table olives, Tehama and Glenn counties should see more tonnage per acre than in Tulare County, he said.
California produces nearly all of the nation's commercial table olives, although acreage has been shrinking as growers move to more profitable crops. Patton said he plans to diversify with almonds and walnuts in the next few years.
Table olive growers have suffered through poor crops in four of the last six seasons, including last year when adverse weather during the bloom stifled orchards that were already stressed from the previous year's heavy loads.
In a typical year, nearly 60 percent of California olives go into oil while the rest is canned for table olives, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation. The oil olive harvest will start in a couple of weeks, said Brendon Flynn, general manager of Pacific Farms and Orchards in Gerber, Calif.
The farm labor shortage has been a big concern for West Coast growers all year, particularly tree fruit, vegetable and grape producers in Washington and California. Contract labor crews have been 25 percent to 30 percent short as fewer migrants are coming from Mexico and elsewhere.
Patton said the situation screams for immigration reform.
"I'm pretty frustrated politically," he said. "We have had three presidents and we're now on No. 4, and they haven't done a damn thing about this immigration (issue). They need to put it on the floor and get it taken care of."
2012 California Olive Probability Survey Report: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Fruits_and_Nuts/201208olvpb.pdf
Olive Growers Council of California: http://www.olivecouncil.com/