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Labor concerns lead peach growers to look to machines

Just In | CA

Posted on: Aug 18th 2016

Source: California Farm Bureau Federation

As much as California peaches are enjoyed in everything from a fruit cup to grandma's homemade pie, farmers say the stonefruit is challenging and expensive to grow, especially given high labor costs and relatively flat demand.

In response to concerns about availability and cost of harvest crews, Sutter County farmer Rajinder Chohan invested in a mechanical peach harvester. The machine shakes the tree on one side, while the other receives the fruit.

" You are not getting enough pickers, you are not getting enough sorters, and they are not as good when it comes to quality," said Chohan, who grows clingstone peaches for the canning market. "Canneries have been very cooperative; they know that mechanical harvesting is the only way to do it going forward."

Rich Hudgins, president and chief executive officer of the California Canning Peach Association, said the cost of labor already represents 70 percent of a grower's direct costs and that proportion will rise with increases in the California minimum wage. About 12 percent of the cling peach tonnage from Yuba and Sutter counties is expected to be mechanically harvested this year, he said.

"We know we have to get that (figure) higher and we know that we have to work with processors to do so," he said. "There are challenges as far as quality of the fruit arriving at the processing plant, so we have to do it in a way that makes sense for the processing plant."

Cling peach harvest typically occurs from mid-July to mid-September, but Chohan said it began about a week earlier than usual this year. Damage to the region's agriculture caused by hailstorms last May means Chohan is harvesting only 50 percent of his cling peach crop.

Aside from hail-damaged fruit, growers agree that fruit quality is good, with nice size and color.

Chohan sells fruit to Del Monte Foods and Seneca Foods, which, with other processors, agreed to pay growers a record price of $490 per ton of fruit this season, or $30 higher than the 2015 price. The state's total cling peach crop is estimated at 321,000 tons, slightly less than last year's crop. Of the 18,000 acres of cling peaches in California, the majority are canned, with the remainder for frozen and baby food.

While overall demand for California canned peaches remains flat, California faces added competition from imports from China, Greece and Chile, which, Hudgins said, "is being felt in both the food service and retail markets, as this volume displaces domestic canned fruit sales." In addition, U.S. canned-peach exports for 2015-16 fell by 42 percent.

To retain support for California-grown, locally produced cling peaches, the California Canning Peach Association participated in a California Joint Legislative Audit Committee hearing last week, requesting that school-lunch programs be audited to ensure that they are complying with a "Buy American" requirement. Under the requirement, institutions participating in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program must purchase domestically grown and produced foods to the maximum extent practical.

"We are on track to deliver the smallest crop in modern history, so there is a reason that we are pushing back and saying there needs to be more enforcement of the Buy American provision," Hudgins said. "We've now been given a mandate that our labor costs are going to go up 50 percent over the next four years, and yet we can identify multiple cases where taxpayer dollars are being spent to bring imported product into this country to undercut our domestic food production."

The committee approved a request by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, and supported by agricultural groups, to audit California schools to determine whether programs are under compliance with the Buy American requirement. Groups in support of the audit include the California Farm Bureau Federation, the Agricultural Council of California and Western Growers.

For fresh peaches, harvest continues in the San Joaquin Valley, where much of the state's freestone or fresh peaches are grown. Peak season for fresh peaches is typically between July and August, yet varieties can appear as early as May through October. California growers are expected to produce 260,000 tons of peaches, up 3 percent from last season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Brett Britz of Parlier-based SunWest Fruit Co. grows, packs and ships white- and yellow-fleshed peaches, as well as nectarines, plums, pluots and citrus fruit. Harvest of freestone peaches began in May, a few days earlier than normal. Britz described fruit quality as excellent this year, both in flavor and size.

As other farmers have reported, finding enough employees to pick the fruit during harvest remains a challenge; fresh peaches must be hand-picked.

Most of what is grown at SunWest Fruit is sold in U.S. markets, with a portion exported to Canada and Mexico. Britz said peach supply currently outpaces demand, and some acres of fresh peaches have been removed.

Jeff Simonian of Fowler-based Simonian Fruit Company said the grower price for fresh peaches varies depending on time of harvest. In May, the price ranged from $20 to $25 for a 22-pound box and now the price is $15 to $20 for a 22-pound box.

"Demand has been a little up and down this year," he said, adding that demand also decreases during peak harvest times such as the Fourth of July. "Peaches are very complex with competition from other states. Plus, there is the ability to send some to the cannery or freezer if needed."

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