PARTNERS

By Craig W. Anderson

2019 was not, by any measure, a good or even a decent year for the San Joaquin County cherry crop. Due to drought-busting rains, it was a terrible year for the popular fruit, a harvest that sent growers reaching for crop insurance forms after estimates of an excellent crop were drowned by cloudbursts.

As the 2020 harvest loomed, cherry growers peered into the future where estimates indicated a reasonably good crop awaited. Bloom, bees and pollination by all accounts went well, the rain that dropped by wasn’t anywhere near catastrophic, temperatures were acceptable and material applications went well.

SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel, a cherry and walnut grower near Linden, said 2020 inquiries were really strong for cherries. Worker protection in the field and in packinghouses from COVID-19 is vital and that packinghouses might have to run cherries slower if “fewer people were on the lines.”

But assorted potential troubles lurked, perhaps foremost among them: concern about having sufficient labor available to pick the 2020 crop. And, how would the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic affect the labor force that harvests cherries?

Labor

“We always hold our breath when cherry season rolls around,” said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. “I’m hoping labor won’t be a problem and that the crop will be a good one. The bottom line is that we need a good crop and harvest this year. In fact, all of our crops could use a good year.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had good news for growers; the department announced that growers hiring H-2A workers, that they can stay in the U.S. longer than the federally-regulated three years, and organizations that have applied for H-2A worker permits can begin employing those workers before their application is approved.

Labor-opinions vary

“Every commodity has labor concerns,” said SJFB President David Strecker. “With labor, the concern for cherries is whether or not the entire crew will remain throughout the season.”

Part of the problem has been described by anecdotal rumors floating around that in Colusa County farmers are poaching workers from their neighbors, luring them with promises of a $2 to $3 increase in pay above their current compensation.

Chicanery aside, SJFB members are aware of such shenanigans but are not overly concerned about it. “I use local labor contractors for extra workers and as long as I get the pickers I need for each of my fields, mostly from the same workers we used last year and the year before that, I’ll be fine,” said SJFB Second Vice President Jake Samuel, a diversified cherry grower. “The labor contractors I’ve talked to feel good about labor availability. Our crews still want to come up.”

On the other hand, Vogel said, “I’ve heard some labor contractors are concerned.”

Coronavirus

Coronavirus has changed the regulatory climate for cherry growers throughout California with Cal-OSHA informing growers via OSHA’s “Safety and Health Guidance” report of what’s expected of them. The mandates are described in a Cal-OSHA notification which begins with: “California employers are required to establish and implement an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) to protect employees from all worksite hazards, including infectious diseases.”

What employers of ag workers must be aware of includes providing all necessary information to workers, protect current workers and new arrivals, provide information in English and Spanish, inform them of the dangers of carpooling, and be sure to use worker spacing in fields or orchards.

Sick leave and pay have been extended to 10 weeks, and that it is “important to get a sick person the financial means to stay home and that it only takes one person to infect an entire crew,” according to the mandates.

The SJFB website contains detailed information about everything COVID-19.

2020 good year?

The California Cherry Board’s official estimate of the 2020 crop comes in at 6.725 million boxes and “pricing and competition are always issues we have to deal with,” said Samuel “They remain to be resolved and we’ll know more as the season moves along.”

He said the industry’s hoping for a good year and that “packing sheds are excited about cherries at this time. There’s a positivity around cherries.”

Samuel mentioned a rumor making the rounds that the industry will be chartering flights to get cherries to overseas markets, a not inconceivable concept considering more than 40 percent of the U.S. cherry crop is exported. Whether or not this is an economically feasible plan remains to be seen, but that it’s even being considered represents the industry’s need to market its product.

Creativity needed

“People will have to get creative regarding export market transportation,” Blodgett said.

The usual foreign buyers are still able to buy our cherries but the problem is how to transport the product to the overseas markets, according to Strecker. Some of that exported product could be shifted to the domestic market because “people always want our cherries,” he said. “We need to have our workers, good prices, good weather and some good luck from the start to the end of the cherry season. Getting everything accomplished in cherries, as in any other crop, is the main thing, something we haven’t been able to do the last few seasons.”

“The crop looks close to being average or light,” said Vogel of his two cherry orchards. “It’s spotty; pollination was pretty good and bloom varied from tree to tree and orchard to orchards. So, it’s difficult to know what the overall crop will be.”

“The COVID-19 situation may have an effect on the Global Gap program,” Samuel said. “Certification could be affected; Global Gap is still working on it.”

News from a packer

“The biggest challenge this year is maintaining a safe work environment, said Annamarie Costamagna, a spokesperson for Delta Packing Co. of Lodi, Inc. “We’ve established all COVID-19 protection protocols and we’re scaling back our labor force significantly. We’ll run with less people and still optimize our production.”

She said Delta Packing’s preparing for a light cherry crop but it’s basically going to be “different than any other season we’ve had the last few years because of all that’s happened to affect agriculture.”

Ozone protection added

Sanitation is the watchword propelling change. “We’ve added ozone spray bars to the facility,” Costamagna explained. “It’s used in cold storage [a portion of Delta Packing’s services], over cherries and in other areas that cherries move through.”

The ozone application leaves no residue while killing mold, viruses and bacteria; it also increases the shelf life of cherries.

A closer look

SJFB Past President Jim Ferrari, a cherry grower near Linden, eyed his cherry crop and reported that “the Bings are light this year, which is the effect of a big crop set last year, a crop that was devastated by that late rain. I really like Bings. We got the pollen out but it wasn’t a really good bloom.”

He said the earlier varieties had a decent bloom and a good set. “There was no crop last year so they set well this year. It’s hit or miss with cherries anyway, so while this year isn’t spectacular, it is fairly decent. The previous year sets the standard for the following year and that’s what’s happened now.”

Ferrari said those involved in the export market need to “consolidate their efforts with packers working together for the good of the cherry industry.” He added that the profusion of regulations have “tightened what we can do.”

“Agriculture needs to be as transparent as possible, managing, picking, packing and monitoring our workers’ health,” Vogel said.