Shortage of farm workers to pick strawberries


Buscas trabajo? Looking for work? This is the first time ever signs like this one have popped up next to the strawberry fields. It's coming up on peak season, and there is a shortage of strawberry pickers in Watsonville. Growers are recruiting aggressively, offering valuable perks.

"There's some farmers that do provide health care, they have their own clinics; they have a lot of services, discounts," California Strawberry Commission spokesperson Sergio Sanchez said.

There's higher pay as well. Two growers are even planning a vehicle drawing to retain workers. The problem, according to work force experts, is the improving Mexican economy and greater difficulty crossing the U.S. border. The 400 family-owned strawberry growers need between 25,000 and 30,000 workers at peak season.

The shortage stretches beyond this area.

"Santa Maria, a grower there has 200 jobs available; he doesn't have the people so he decided to cut 25 acres of his harvest this year," Sanchez said. "That's just a response from him. He would love to have 200 workers."

Watsonville's strawberry growers worry some of their crop won't get picked and go to waste. It costs them $18,000-$20,000 an acre to plant and cultivate their fields.

That could ultimately push up prices for fresh strawberries

Strawberry field crews are an elite group. They can make $12-$25 an hour, but not everyone has the skill or experience to pick the numbers required to reach that pay level, a combination of a base and piece rate. The tight labor market lets them choose where they will work.

The California Strawberry Commission is taking the labor shortage to Washington next week to engage with lawmakers to try to convince them that the problem should also be part of the discussion on immigration reform.

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