Yuba-Sutter farmers picky about peach pickers
Call the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau at 530-673-6550 to be added to a list of potential workers that will be given to farmers and labor contractors requesting help. The bureau also suggests people who want to pursue the job opportunity more aggressively approach growers if they see harvests in progress.
Peach farmers need laborers, and residents say they want to pick, yet somehow the two cannot connect to remedy what's nearing a harvest crisis.
When the farmers' struggle was publicized last week, residents responded with an outpouring of support. Men, women, teens, the unemployed, and even people with other jobs said they were willing and desperately wanted to try their hand at the hard labor if it meant they could earn some cash and help save the crop.
After the shortage was publicized, more than 100 people from around Yuba-Sutter, Sacramento and even South Dakota called the Appeal-Democrat asking how they could get a job. But when they tried to reach out, many did not know where to turn and some said their offers were rejected.
"We are trying. We just can't touch base. They don't seem to want our help," said Yuba City resident Sonya Metcalf.
When she heard farmers' crops were rotting off the trees because of a statewide labor shortage, she tried calling a farmer and some labor contractors to offer help from her husband and other relatives — all of whom have jobs but could use the extra money. Her calls were either not returned or she was told the aid was not needed, she said.
"Apparently, they don't need the help that bad," Metcalf said. "It is something that can be fixed and if the farmers wanted our help, there are people in this community who want to help them."
The Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau is trying to serve as a go-between to match farmers with pickers, said Executive Director Megan Foster. It started running radio ads late last week asking growers who would hire people with limited farming experience to call the office.
The Employment Development Department's outreach for migrant and seasonal farmworkers was also fielding calls and making referrals to farmers, said Cheryl Riley, director of the Yuba County One Stop. Her office is willing, too, to help with a solution.
"Whatever their needs are, we can advertise," she said. "We can make facilities available for them to interview folks, or we have staff here that can help with the prescreening."
Fixing this problem is not as simple as having just anyone show up to work, Foster said.
"Even though there is a huge labor shortage for the growers, they do have to look out for the best interest of their farm or their ranch," she said. "It's up to their discretion to determine who would be best suited to help."
Growers have to provide a lot of training for their laborers and are ultimately responsible for workers 'safety, she said.
"They are wary of hiring people who don't have the experience, because in the past when people have signed up to work for them, they've left after a day's work because they don't realize the hard labor that it is," Foster said.
Most pickers begin at sunrise and stop around noon when it gets too hot. They are paid about $16 to $18 a bin, and an experienced worker can often pick seven or eight bins a day.
They wear long sleeves to protect from irritating peach fuzz and often work in high 90s or triple-digit heat. Overtime doesn't accrue until after 10 hours of work, and there are seldom benefits.
When Marysville resident Gary Clark heard there was a need for pickers, the unemployed construction worker figured he could earn money while he looks for work. He bought a picking bag and showed up to an orchard, only to learn pay was $17 a bin and he doubted he could fill one in a day.
"I can't even afford the gas," he said. "If it was hourly, I'd go out and do it for $8 an hour, but I can't go out there and bust my butt for 17 bucks."
If the farmers offered an hourly wage, Clark said he thinks they would not have such a labor shortage.
After hearing about the need, Olivehurst resident Amanda Miller drove around with six other people and tried to talk with farmers if they spotted a possible harvest. Eventually, they found a job, and after a day's work sorting fruit they were told they could return Monday.
A recent college graduate still searching for a job, she's content to sort peaches until she lines up something better. But she warns others that harvest work of any kind is not what everyone would expect.
The first day, Miller wore short sleeves and her arms itched from the fuzz, and as someone whose previous jobs were mostly clerical, she said the physically demanding labor was exhausting.
"We've always made jokes — 'It's not that hard ... We can all get out there and do it,'" Miller said. "Well, this is a lot harder than you think."
CONTACT Ashley Gebb at email@example.com or 749-4783. Find her on Facebook at /ADagebb or on Twitter at @ADagebb.