PAJARO VALLEY– At Lakeside Organic Gardens, machines aren’t replacing people, but rather helping get the job done in the wake of labor shortages.
Lakeside Organic Gardens, the largest family-owned and operated solely organic vegetable grower/shipper in the U.S., started using an Asa-Lift automation machine from Denmark last year to help harvest carrots . The machine is transported between Lakeside’s Pajaro Valley ranches/farms and Imperial Valley in Southern California. It pulls the carrots out of the ground, lays them on a conveyor belt and dumps them into a bin. From there, the crew bunches and boxes the carrots. Lakeside, established in 1996, sells its produce nationwide and in Canada.
Operations Manager Juan Gonzalez said the purchase was a result of labor shortages.
He explained that staff looks for the latest technology to help automate Lakeside’s operation, and because Europe has been short on labor longer than the U.S., he researched companies there and decided this product would work best. He
“We can now produce more boxes of carrots with the same amount of people…,” he said in a prepared statement. “They now only focus on bunching and packing and not pulling.”
It can harvest 20,000 pounds per day, while a person can harvest 700 pounds per day. The machine is more efficient, but a skilled crew still needs to operate it, said Marliese Ward, Lakeside’s creative marketing manager.
Gonzalez said that while staff numbers have stayed consistent during the last five years at nearly 400 employees, Lakeside needs to increase its labor force by about 30% and the season is just getting started.
“The labor shortage is bad,” he said. “A business is supposed to keep growing, but in the Ag industry it’s the opposite, most companies have actually downsized due to the lack of labor.”
Labor in the agriculture industry is lacking for a few reasons. Gonzalez said the economy is good and people are moving into other industries, such as cannabis. Second generation migrant families are teaching their children not to go into agriculture, too, and are not aware that it is more than just hard labor, he said.
Laura Tourte, farm management adviser at the UC Cooperative Extension, said specialty crops grown here, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, require more labor than field crops: grain, wheat or corn.
“Labor is really critical for the production of specialty crops,” she said and added that harvesting the crops with a machine is a difficult task because machines can’t mimic the decisions people make.
Driscoll’s berry grower John Eiskamp is also familiar with the labor shortage. He said a full staff for his company J.E. Farms Inc. is ideally close to 475 people, but is typically 40-60 people short in part due to labor competition. He said immigration policies haven’t been resolved on a national level, stricter U.S. border security creates challenges for people to enter the country and because the economy in Mexico is improving, people find more job opportunities there.
He said when labor costs rise and agriculture businesses need to meet certain regulations for growing in California, it is harder to compete with other regions and states. Rising farm wages also tighten the farm labor market in the U.S., according to a 2018 USDA report summary.