SPRECKELS, Calif., Nov. 2, 2016 - Tanimura & Antle, a leading grower of salad greens and other fresh produce, isn’t immune from the labor squeeze facing the rest of agriculture, and company officials say they have little hope that Congress will pass immigration reform.

But so far, the company, based in California’s Salinas Valley, an area known as “America’s Salad Bowl,” is meeting the challenge through a combination of methods, including labor-saving technology as well as pay incentives and company housing, to attract workers and boost productivity. The company has increased production by 8 percent this year with 10 percent fewer hours, says Timothy Escamilla, the company’s vice president of operations.

“We believe that having the best compensation, benefit value proposition for the employee, is the only way we’re going to be able to continue to harvest our crops because we don’t see any light with immigration reform,” he said.

Tanimura & Antle, whose customers include Walmart, Safeway, Kroger, Whole Foods Market and Costco, produces several varieties of lettuce as well as broccoli, cauliflower and celery on more than 30,000 acres in California and Arizona, employing 1,400 to 1,500 field workers per year. For the foreseeable future, Escamilla doesn’t believe machines can replace harvest workers: The human eye is critical to checking the quality of the produce before it’s picked and boxed, he said. Produce with blemishes is left in the field. Cauliflower heads with brown spots were visible throughout a recently harvested field near the Tanimura & Antle offices. “We don’t believe it’s going to be possible to eliminate the human interaction,” he said.

Consumer preferences also can make it difficult to mechanize. For example, because shoppers want their celery in an intact bunch, workers must chop it closer to the ground than a machine could.

The company has been able to cut down on labor needs for thinning new crops and weeding fields after acquiring Plant Tape, a Spanish company that developed a method of growing perfectly spaced seedlings separated in a biodegradable tape. The tape is moved from the nursery to the field when the seedlings are the right size.

Another possible solution to the labor crunch that Tanimura & Antle and its competitors increasingly use is the H-2A visa program, but that comes with a stiff price tag. The cost of recruiting, transporting and housing workers comes to about $4,000 to $5,000 per employee, officials say.

Nevertheless, Tanimura & Antle has used H-2A for the past 10 years for its farms, where it grows winter crops along the Mexican border near Yuma, Arizona, and in California’s Imperial Valley. The company has considered importing H-2A workers to its farms in the Salinas Valley, where most of the nation’s salad greens are grown.

Rules for the H-2A program require farmers to provide housing for their workers, and many operations often do that by looking for an old motel to convert. Tanimura & Antle instead built on its own land a 100-unit apartment complex, with each furnished unit capable of housing up to eight workers.

As it turned out, the company didn’t need to bring H-2A workers to Salinas this year and is instead allowing domestic workers to use the furnished apartments, which opened this spring. The company hopes the housing will prove to be a draw for domestic farmworkers who otherwise would be reluctant to move to the area. So far it has been. About 200 workers employed at other company farms in California moved to the area this spring to live in the complex and work on the Salinas Valley operations.

Housing manager Sal Castaneda expects to have 450 to 500 workers living at the site next year, which he said should be enough to meet the company’s labor needs.

Workers pay $125 a month in rent to live in one of the units, each of which has a kitchen, living area, linens, dishes and wifi. The apartment complex also has its own recreation room, store, and baseball and soccer fields. In nearby Salinas, which is only an hour south of San Jose and Silicon Valley, it’s common for as many as 20 workers to live in a single small apartment.

The workers living in the company housing have proven to be more productive, Escamilla said. “They’re more rested. They feel better. Theyre healthier. Its quiet. Its safe.”

The company also is trying to use financial incentives to boost productivity. Company workers earn a $12.50 per hour base wage, but benefits push the average pay to more than $17, and workers also receive dental and health insurance. Over the next five years, increases in the incentives are expected to push the average earnings to over $20 an hour.

The company also will comply with a new California law, which farmers fought to stop, that will require farmworkers to be paid overtime if they work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. Currently, California farmworkers earn overtime after 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week.

Many growers say they expect to cut hours when the requirement is fully phased in after five years. Tanimura & Antle has been paying overtime after eight hours a day and 48 hours a week.

When the law phases in, the company expects to pay workers six hours of overtime a week. “Because the crops grow 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we are a six-day-work-week operation, so we are going to incorporate overtime on that sixth day. We believe we can manage that,” Escamilla said.


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