Mar 27, 2019
Growers get proactive for workers relations

Wage rates, federal and state labor laws, food safety regulations and buyer-mandated audits are making employers’ relationships with staff increasingly more complicated.

Workers need to be trained in procedures and best practices, but with the added training (and with mandated wage increases) they become more valuable to their employers – both financially and practically.

In this new labor market, some growers are taking a proactive approach to worker relations, using third-party groups, including nonprofits, that offer recruitment, training, audit services and communication platforms in addition to labor recruitment.

Andrew & Williamson Sales has been growing tomatoes and strawberries for over 30 years, and farming organically for more than 15 years. It uses a variety of outside resources to maintain good worker relations. In 2015, the company started an H-2A pilot programs with CIERTO, a certified labor contractor, with just 32 farm workers. In 2019, Andrew & Williamson has more than 900 guest workers under the H-2A visa program.

“CIERTO assures clear, transparent and safe recruitment,” said Amalia Zimmerman-Lommel, director of social responsibility for Andrew & Williamson. “This means that the potential farm worker will not receive false and or misleading information with promises that cannot be fulfilled. Every person is trained by CIERTO to understand what to expect during the work visa process, what to expect upon arrival to the host farm employer and what their rights and responsibilities are in the United States as a guest worker under the H-2A visa program.”

An Andrew & Williamson team on a farm in Camalu, Mexico. Photos: Equitable Food Initiative

Certified standards

Andrew & Williamson clients also are certified by a nonprofit group, the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), which certifies fresh produce growers who meet rigorous standards for labor, food safety and pest management. The certification process includes an audit and a 40-hour hands-on, interactive training activity for farm management teams – including its farm locations inside Mexico.

“The strength of our certification lies in a mixed labor-management leadership team that EFI trains in problem-solving skills they use to bring the farm into compliance with our standards,” said EFI Executive Director Peter O’Driscoll. “There is always a place for specialized training in technical competencies relevant to specialty crops, focused on regulations, (human resources) systems, pesticide use, food safety controls and so forth. While EFI training covers these areas related to our standards, the key difference from other training courses is that the intervention is designed to improve workplace culture by creating new mechanisms and skills for labor-management collaboration that go far beyond the technical content of other courses in the marketplace. We’re not aware of other training providers who are trying to introduce LEAN concepts of continuous improvement to the agricultural labor force.”

Politicians, business leaders and workers discuss the EFI workforce development program at an Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce farm in Oxnard, California.

Zimmerman-Lommel said that after EFI’s training, the management teams will continue to meet monthly to discuss ways to improve the farm’s processes and communications, or any other situations or issues that need the attention of management.

“As a result, we have seen improved ability to attract farm workers and a higher retention rate in all regions,” she said. “Part of the training and education involves making farmworkers aware of the supply chain and the vital importance of their participation in getting the products that we grow to the consumers’ table. With this higher level of understanding, they become acutely aware that they are the last people to touch the fruits and vegetables before they are consumed.”

Andrew & Williamson also uses a communication platform called GANAZ to share customer comments with the workers, and also communicate with them on a variety of issues such as changes in the law, changes in work schedules due to weather, or the start of a new harvest season.

“Keeping many different channels of communication open has been helpful in the sustainability of our workforce, Zimmerman-Lommel said.

Keeping best employees

O’Driscoll said growers should be concerned about how to retain their most valuable workers. The prices for a week-long farm management training runs about $16,000.

“In a tight labor market, growers have to figure out how to become the ‘employer of choice,’” he said. “And in the era of the industry’s Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices, growers must also figure out how to become the ‘supplier of choice’ to retail customers who seek greater assurance and transparency in their produce supply chains.”

NatureSweet is a vertically-integrated agriculture company with 18 different growing facilities – 17 in Mexico and one in Willcox, Arizona, with roughly 1,800 acres in greenhouses. Most of its workers are full-time, year-round associates with wages higher than others working in the industry, said Kathryn Ault, vice president of customer support and service for NatureSweet.

“We are an organization that is comfortable with giving and demanding,” Ault said. “You reap what you sow and for giving a great job and working conditions, we ask that our associates have a good work ethic and will show up to work every day.”

She said that the company has a turnover rate of 2 percent, “unheard of in agriculture,” and investment in its workers pays off.

“The productivity of our associates has increased significantly as a result of us employing selectively from the local labor pool, extensive and continuous training and the nature of how we organize our teams to complete tasks,” Ault said.

Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor


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