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Yuba-Sutter harvest not all peachy
In 2011, peaches were the fourth-highest valued crop in Yuba County, at $14.8 million.
The latest Sutter County data, for 2010, shows a value of $38.1 million for the fourth-highest crop.
Yuba-Sutter peach farmers are nearing a crisis as fruit ripens, but a severe labor shortage leaves no one to pick it.
Laborers have been hard to come by for most farmers since extra-early variety picking began mid-month, and many peaches are dropping on the ground and going to waste. If the shortage continues into regular varieties, farmers said they will be facing a serious hurt, especially as peak harvest approaches in a few weeks.
"It's money falling on the ground," Yuba County farmer Dalvir Gill said Wednesday. "We are losing every day."
He has farmed off Hammonton-Smartsville Road for 18 years and has never experienced a shortage such as this. Gill has gone door-to-door and called numerous contractors looking for pickers, but to no avail.
"I usually have 30 to 40 people every day. I have five today," he said, standing in his orchards where ripe and rotten peaches littered the ground and wooden bins were stacked empty to the side.
It's essentially a pickers' market, where laborers can demand higher prices and choose orchards they want to work in because they know they are in short supply. Farmers speculate the shortage is the result of a prolonged cherry season in Oregon and tightened border security.
A study by Pew Research Center earlier this year reported that for the first time since the Great Depression, more people are leaving the United States for Mexico than vice versa, said Rich Hudgins, president and CEO of the California Canning Peach Association. It's likely the result of immigration concerns, better opportunities in Mexico and the dangers in crossing the border.
"There is no part of the state today that is unaffected by the lack of labor," he said. "It's a case of trying to do the best we can do each day."
Despite unemployment rates nearing 17.5 percent in Yuba County and 18 percent in Sutter County, no local residents seem interested in the labor either, farmers said.
"Not a lot of people want to do this kind of work," said Karm Kalkat, who farms with his father in Gridley and Marysville. "The kind of people that are collecting unemployment, they don't want to go out and pick peaches, and the younger generation doesn't want to be involved in farm labor at all."
Effects, short- and long-term
The few laborers who do show up often work for a day or two and don't return — without warning the farmer — as they go in search of better orchards. Smaller fruit caused by high summer heat requires more labor to fill a bin and adds to farmers' challenges.
If workers don't show up soon, the canneries are going to have to make some kind of concessions and allow mechanized picking, Kalkat said.
"Canneries want fruit picked by hand, which is always a good thing because it doesn't bruise the fruit," he said. "But there is no other option."
Meanwhile, farmers are stuck with the expenses of growing the crops, protecting it with sprays, and feeding with fertilizer and water.
If they cannot find pickers to turn a profit from the harvest, the economic impact could be substantial.
Peaches were the fourth-highest valued crop in Yuba County in 2011 at $14.8 million. The most recent crop report has not been released for Sutter County, but peaches were its fourth-highest crop in 2010, with $38.1 million.
A likely outcome from this shortage, Hudgins said, is growers will veer away from labor-intensive peaches for future plantings and opt instead for more mechanized crops, such as walnuts and almonds, a trend that has already been taking place in Yuba-Sutter as a result of oversupply.
It would be helpful if Congress would take definitive action on comprehensive immigration reform that allows guest workers for agriculture, Hudgins said. The labor shortages in the peach industry will be soon be reflective in other labor-intensive crops as well, he predicts.
"If you are talking about the ability to harvest grapes or apples or pears, it's exactly the same discussion," he said. "There is concern for growers on the labor front regardless of the commodity."
Holding onto hope
Yuba-Sutter farmers are hoping the laborers will return. Farmer Jesse Hundal heard from some pickers that the migrant crews should return in a week or so, but helps him little since his crops are ripe now.
There is a fine line between ripe and rotten, after three or four days of ripeness, the fruit is nearly a loss. Hundal does what he can by salvaging overripe peaches to sell for juice, but at less than a third of the price he would have gotten for cannable fruit.
A second-generation farmer, he said he cannot remember a labor shortage this bad.
"Every farmer I talk to has the same problem," Hundal said. "We get the crop once a year. You either make money or lose money, and the way it's going now, I think we are going to lose money."
Gill wants to be optimistic, but it's not easy.
"It looks like it's gonna get pretty worse," Gill said. "We are on the first variety. If it keeps going like this, we are going to lose all the peaches this year."
CONTACT Ashley Gebb at email@example.com or 749-4783. Find her on Facebook at /ADagebb or on Twitter at @ADagebb.