Technology, philosophies alter farmworking conditions
The Yuma Sun is taking a behind-the-scenes look at agriculture in Yuma. This story is one in an ongoing series. Here are some other stories in this series:
While many farming jobs remain physically and personally demanding, technology and hiring philosophies of some in the agriculture business have dramatically altered the working conditions and way of life for thousands of area laborers.
“When the government outlawed the short-handled shovel years ago, I thought that was going to be the end of farming,” said Steve Alameda, co-owner and manager of Top Flavor Farms and president of the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association. “But what that did was it forced us to be more efficient. And then new technologies came around which allowed people to cover more ground, not to mention making it easier on the workers' (bodies).”
Alameda said his farm employs about 60-70 people, with approximately half being year-round employees, to bring a crop to the point of harvest.
Each planting season begins with a group of five or six individuals who plot out the 2,000-acre farm.
“Our planning schedules are much more complex now,” he said. “It used to be that we'd go out and plant 85 percent iceberg lettuce. Now we plant 15-20 different commodities on any given week. So it's just incredible what goes out there.”
Once the schedules are finalized and the seeds have been planted by GPS-guided tractors, four sprinkler crews consisting of around five employees each begin installing the irrigation system.
“The overhead sprinkler irrigation is one of the toughest jobs to keep up with,” Alameda said. “The reason is that whatever gets plotted, they have to be right there with it. And it always seems like there is never enough pipe or never enough hours in a day. You run it for about 10 days and then you pick it up and move on to the next area. So it's just go and go and go for those guys.”
After fertile irrigation is completed and the plants reach approximately an inch in height, Alameda then contracts out to a local labor contractor to bring in crews to perform the hoeing and thinning of the crops.
“Usually around three to four weeks we bring in people to do those jobs. We use Foothills Packing and then we turn to them for when it's time to harvest.”
During the harvest period, Alameda estimates there could be anywhere between 300 and 400 people harvesting the crops on any given day.
One of the biggest changes over the past few years in agricultural labor has been the attempt of harvesting companies and others to maintain a more consistent work force.
“The whole idea on labor here is to keep people working year-round, and the more they can work, the better because it keeps them in the area,” Alameda said. “So if they are not harvesting lettuce, maybe they could be harvesting dates or melons or something like that. They could work produce for four or five months and then they can go and do something else (locally).”
Alameda said that while some people still travel with the seasons, it is not the same as it used to be.
“That traveling stuff is tough. A lot of people have families here. It's cheaper to live here. Going off and living in Salinas (Calif.) is hard on people. It's a difficult place to live. So we've been seeing more and more people staying here year-round than in the past.”
Darren DaRonco can be reached at 539-6857 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow him on Twitter @YSDarrend or on Facebook at www.faceboook.com/YSDarrenD.