Cancel OK

Salinas Valley

It’s not easy being green: how growers continue to conquer challenges

In Salinas, agriculture is more than just business, it’s life—to growers large and small, to multigenerational farmers, and to storied risk-takers who laid the foundation for one of the world’s most productive growing regions.

And although California suffered through much volatility last year—including too little rain, too much rain, floods, wildfires, mudslides, and freezes—Salinas bested most challenges to provide mightily to the nation’s food supply.

Come along as we visit America’s Salad Bowl, where businesses continue to seek creative solutions to weather, labor, and food safety while balancing the needs of environmental stewardship.

Highs & Lows
Although Salinas and Monterey County are renowned for their agricultural activity, due to various challenges the past few years, agricultural output has declined—even in such mainstays as head and leaf lettuce.

The good news is there are still more than 150 crops grown in the region and even with falling output, leaf lettuce—including butter, green, and red leaf, as well as endive, escarole, and romaine—led crop values for the county and comprised over 60 percent of national production. In addition, Salinas still dominates U.S. production for several other commodities, including head or iceberg lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, and strawberries.

Greenhouse production, on the rise in other parts of the country and in Canada, is undergoing an identity crisis in California as numerous growers are shifting from tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to cannabis, after recreational use of marijuana was legalized in January.

Organic ups and downs
Organic production, too, is varying in Monterey County, with acreage fall-ing even as demand and sales continue to surge across much of the country. This mirrors the experience of Mark Sergent, sales manager for S & S Marketing and Sales, Inc. in Salinas, who says he deals “a bit” in organics, but not much due to inconsistent availability. “I don’t focus on organics, [because] if I did, I might not be in business.”

Despite the recent declines, Mon-terey County has been an important site of organic production and innovation. Indeed, Monterey County was the first to register with the State of California and be accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to certify organics. The county also hosts the Organic Grower Summit in December to facilitate connections across the supply chain.

Brian Vertrees, director of business development for Naturipe Farms, LLC, sees the current gap between organic supply and demand as a great opportunity, pretty much the opposite of Sergent’s experiences. “Organics continue to be a trend that show no signs of slowing down.

Page 1 of 712345...Last »

In Salinas, agriculture is more than just business, it’s life—to growers large and small, to multigenerational farmers, and to storied risk-takers who laid the foundation for one of the world’s most productive growing regions.

And although California suffered through much volatility last year—including too little rain, too much rain, floods, wildfires, mudslides, and freezes—Salinas bested most challenges to provide mightily to the nation’s food supply.

Come along as we visit America’s Salad Bowl, where businesses continue to seek creative solutions to weather, labor, and food safety while balancing the needs of environmental stewardship.

Highs & Lows
Although Salinas and Monterey County are renowned for their agricultural activity, due to various challenges the past few years, agricultural output has declined—even in such mainstays as head and leaf lettuce.

The good news is there are still more than 150 crops grown in the region and even with falling output, leaf lettuce—including butter, green, and red leaf, as well as endive, escarole, and romaine—led crop values for the county and comprised over 60 percent of national production. In addition, Salinas still dominates U.S. production for several other commodities, including head or iceberg lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, and strawberries.

Greenhouse production, on the rise in other parts of the country and in Canada, is undergoing an identity crisis in California as numerous growers are shifting from tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to cannabis, after recreational use of marijuana was legalized in January.

Organic ups and downs
Organic production, too, is varying in Monterey County, with acreage fall-ing even as demand and sales continue to surge across much of the country. This mirrors the experience of Mark Sergent, sales manager for S & S Marketing and Sales, Inc. in Salinas, who says he deals “a bit” in organics, but not much due to inconsistent availability. “I don’t focus on organics, [because] if I did, I might not be in business.”

Despite the recent declines, Mon-terey County has been an important site of organic production and innovation. Indeed, Monterey County was the first to register with the State of California and be accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to certify organics. The county also hosts the Organic Grower Summit in December to facilitate connections across the supply chain.

Brian Vertrees, director of business development for Naturipe Farms, LLC, sees the current gap between organic supply and demand as a great opportunity, pretty much the opposite of Sergent’s experiences. “Organics continue to be a trend that show no signs of slowing down.

“Organic fresh produce retail sales are at about the $5 billion mark according to a recent Organic Produce Network/Nielsen survey,” Vertrees continues, “and organic berries are playing a key role in this.” As a major berry grower, these market trends have led Naturipe Farms to expand operations in Salinas last year for both organic strawberries and blackberries.

Vertrees attributes this strong demand to shifting consumer trends. “Those of us in the industry often forget most consumers have no idea where or how their produce is grown, so we see continued interest in this as consumers rediscover the ‘roots’ of where their produce comes from.”

Plenty and Not
Despite some declines in crop numbers, the Salinas Valley is still one of incredible abundance. This land of plenty, however, doesn’t always reflect local conditions. According to the Food Bank of Monterey County, a growing portion of the region’s residents are hungry.

Ag Against Hunger, founded back in 1990, works with dozens of area growers to collect surplus produce for the county food bank, local schools, and other organizations to help feed those in need.

In the same spirit of collaboration and caring, a handful of local growers and suppliers came together back in September to gather fresh produce for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, TX.

Another initiative works to combat inequality and hunger through a farmworker training program. The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association’s five-year Farmer Education and Enterprise Development Program is tailored to providing farmworkers with the skills and support needed to grow and sell their own organic crops in the Monterey community.

Feeling the Squeeze
For many in the industry, 2017 and early 2018 has revolved around shortages—from tight supply of some crops to labor to trucks and drivers. Pricing also fluctuated wildly from highs last spring to plummeting lows around the holiday season with amazing weather creating a glut on the supply side.

The shipping side of the coin
Despite the promise of a new year, negative effects lingered in January, especially in shipping and transportation. Sergent has been in the industry for 25 years and still can’t find the trucks he needs on a consistent basis, even with strong relationships built over the decades.

He had plenty of “trouble putting produce on trucks heading to the East Coast” early in the year, which Sergent attributes in part to the December deadline for implementing electronic logging devices in trucks.

Although the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced a 90-day waiver for those hauling agricultural products, the mandate has still caused headaches and confusion.

And while California hasn’t officially set its own rules for electronic logs in state, many expect it will come to fruition by 2020.

WORD OF CHOICE
In one to three words, how would you describe your business in 2018?

Mark Sergent, S & S Marketing and Sales, Inc. – challenging

Bob Roach, Monterey County – dynamic

April Ward, Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement – hard-working, progressive, dedicated

Brian Vertrees, Naturipe Farms, LLC – flavorful, dynamic, committed

Tom Nunes, The Nunes Company, Inc. – challenging

A losing battle in the fields
It is no surprise labor remains a significant hurdle for many growers, and particularly for Salinas. In addition to the dearth of workers, new regulatory burdens for agriculture are making life even more difficult for those who grow and ship the region’s signature crops.

Tom M. Nunes, vice president of operations at the Nunes Company Inc., agrees, noting, “Labor uncertainty is one of many factors we, as well as the rest of the industry, consider as acres are planted.”

“Labor and workplace rules have increased costs for health insurance mandates, worker compensation insurance, paid time off for various mandated leaves of absence, increases in the minimum wage in the next four years, and changes to the agricultural overtime rule,” comments Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. “Since farmers are forced to accept market pricing for their crops, there is little opportunity to recapture these increased labor costs.”

Farmworker housing
Compounding the labor challenge is the ongoing shortage of farmworker housing. As a result of these struggles, the City of Salinas commissioned a forthcoming “Farmworker Housing Study and Action Plan” to collect data on existing housing needs as well as to foster broader regional collaboration.

For its part, Tanimura & Antle, Inc. built a $17-million housing project in Salinas that many believe will set the industry standard for future projects.

Another grower-shipper, the Nunes Company, Inc., undertook a multiphase construction project, Boronda Villas, for seasonal farmworker housing in Salinas, which will accommodate up to 600 employees when completed. The housing project will be constructed on infill land to make use of existing infrastructure and protect the surrounding farm land.

“This new housing project will relieve some of the housing problems the Salinas area is facing,” stresses Nunes, “particularly during the produce harvest season.”

The company hopes the project will help usher in a new era of stability and worker well-being. “Boronda Villas creates an environment to recruit and retain a consistent and loyal workforce.”

Bob Roach, Monterey County’s assistant agricultural commissioner, emphasizes the value of these efforts, as a ‘once you build it, they will come’ example to attract more workers. “One of our problems here in the county is a lack of affordable housing. It’s great to see the ag industry step up and build housing; any effort to ameliorate the housing shortage here is good.”

Policy woes
Groot hopes housing will serve as an incentive to bring more workers into the area, as there are not nearly enough. “Salinas Valley has experienced labor shortages for harvest crews for several years,” he contends. “Salinas growers need approximately 45,000 harvest crews each year for vegetable and berry crops.”

Even with the use of the federal H-2A visa program, which many find cumbersome and inadequate, the problem is compounded by harsh rhetoric from Washington DC and recent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids across the country, keeping some workers from crossing the border due to fear.

Further, insists Groot, is “the lack of comprehensive immigration policy on a national level, as well as no progress on a temporary worker program that addresses California’s specialty crops.”

A case in point is a state report from the Economic Development Department that found farm payrolls for August 2017 were down by about 2,000 workers or over 2 percent from previous years, exacerbating the competition for labor.

Automating processes
With labor as a relentless challenge, growers continue to turn to technology in the fields and packhouse. Innovations like Tanimura & Antle, Inc.’s PlantTape transplanting system continue to gain popularity.

Introduced a few years ago, the biodegradable tape can reduce a transplant crew from 16 to two workers. Several commodities are now available including broccoli, cauliflower, celery, lettuce, onions, and even tomatoes.

Although this technique and other investments in mechanization have the potential to shake up planting and harvesting for field-grown commodities, many of the region’s most important crops must still be harvested by hand. This is also true for organic growers, who have been hit particularly hard by the labor shortage.

Companies are also taking the initiative to build sustainability across their own supply chains. Nunes explains, “all phases of our vertically-integrated family-run business incorporate sustainability.” The company’s efforts are audited by third-party certification, through Sustainably Grown, part of SCS Global Services.

Environmental stewardship and social responsibility are also top of mind at the merging of Salinas and Silicon Valley for this year’s second Forbes AgTech Summit in June, as the brightest minds explore more cutting-edge tech-based solutions and workforce development programs. In the meantime, Salinas businesses continue their own efforts to build resilience to short- and long-term challenges, while prioritizing sustainability.

Keeping Pests and Disease at Bay
Another recurring environmental challenge for growers is damaging pests. The much-discussed and feared Asian citrus psyllid, which has devastated much of Florida’s citrus industry, continues to worry California growers. Though there have been multiple quarantines, none have touched major growing regions for oranges and other citrus fruits.

Better news is the complete eradication of another pest—the European grapevine moth. Although only one moth was found in Salinas in 2010, stringent pest management policies kept the invasive pest from taking hold in the area. A potential wrinkle to future pest management programs could be the recent ban on spraying pesticides near schools, which went into effect in January.

On the disease front, growers are getting a little help from the University of California Cooperative Extension on how to control wilt. A recent study suggests incorporating broccoli into organic strawberry fields every four years may keep wilt at bay and prevent crop damage.

Although the results are preliminary, many organic growers are looking further into crop rotation strategies to prevent diseases as well as pests.

Liquid Currency
Although the topic of water doesn’t carry the same urgency it did a few years ago, there are still hurdles to keeping aquifers full and balancing distribution between municipalities and growers.

Several innovative, sustainable solutions hail from Salinas, as water may be Monterey County’s most precious resource, especially considering its record-breaking multiyear drought.

As such, growers remain vigilant about usage: drip irrigation is now used on 60 percent of the region’s acres and has had a significant impact, while timers and pressure switches also help on nearly 154,000 acres, according to the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

The water seesaw was particularly evident in 2017, with tragic examples of boom and bust. In February, a Pacific storm rolled through the region flooding fields and delaying plantings, but the rainfall filled the Lake Nacimiento and Lake San Antonio reservoirs. Nevertheless, Roach confirms water is always top of mind. “Winter was unseasonably dry,” he notes, “we’re not saying the drought is over here.”

Rules and Regulations
Further complicating water management is 2014’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, affecting local agencies at the county level. Monterey County “is working to manage water quality with this new regulation being imposed on agriculture to protect groundwater on top of everything else,” explains Roach.

“The costs of compliance, recordkeeping, monitoring, and sampling continue to increase each year,” comments Groot. In many cases, he notes, “resources are directed into monitoring and reporting rather than on-farm solutions to improve water quality.”

Worse yet, he says, “no credit is given to those farms that do make improvements.” Ultimately, Groot fears the “regulatory process will eventually force small farmers out of financial sustainability due to the overwhelming requirements of compliance.”

Although it may be too soon to measure the impact of this recent legislation, there are certainly challenges ahead in finding a balance between current water needs and long-term conservation.

In addition to the aforementioned groundwater and pesticide rules, there are plenty of other regulations reverberating throughout the industry—all adding to the burdens of growers each year. In the long run, Groot believes this regulatory atmosphere “puts the small farmer at a distinct disadvantage, not only against his larger neighbor, but producers in other states.”

Food safety
One such example, for many, is the Produce Safety Rule which went into effect January 26, 2018. April Ward, communications director for the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), explains, “one of the newer requirements from the Produce Safety Rule is that each farm has to employ an individual who has completed a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-recognized Produce Safety Rule Grower Training Course.”

As part of the new process, “In the past year, over 500 people have participated in LGMA tech training and over 200 of those took the Produce Safety Rule grower course,” notes Ward, who says the regulatory changes are related to the California and Arizona LGMA programs’ efforts to be aligned with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and its rules.

“In some areas, LGMA food safety practices exceed the Produce Safety Rule,” explains Ward, “but LGMA members and produce buyers can be assured that by being in compliance with LGMA food safety practices, they are in compliance with the Produce Safety Rule as well.”

And while food safety is always of the utmost importance, “FSMA implementation will add additional costs for food safety monitoring, testing, tracking, and reporting,” points out Groot. In his opinion, more “regulatory requirements will not add measurable safety increments but only additional costs.”

Predictions
In Salinas, where nearly one of every four families rely on income generated by agriculture, the future is always in flux. Though many businesses are grounded in the past, all must continually look to the future in this dynamic yet increasingly complex industry.

When asked about the rest of the year and/or the future of Salinas, Vertrees’ outlook is sunny. “We’re excited about the 2018 season and expect another strong year for our organic berry program out of the Salinas area.”

Roach agrees, noting he does not foresee any black swans and despite last year’s hurdles, says, “My prediction for 2018 is that it will be similar to 2017; hopefully, we’ll have another good year.”

Image: David Litman, vincent noel, KucherAV/Shutterstock.com