For cotton producers and ginners across the Cotton Belt, labor issues continue to affect the bottom line and the ability to produce crops effectively. The American Farm Bureau estimates that between $5 billion and $9 billion in annual farm production is in jeopardy if labor needs are not met.
When American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman spoke to the Arizona Farm Bureau in November, his priority list included a guest worker program allowing for an easier way to hire non-native farm workers in the United States.
Arizona Cotton Growers Executive Vice President Rick Lavis believes that there is a continuing concern regarding the availability of labor for agriculture in Arizona. Producers feel a burden from the lack of a safety net that a good guest worker program would supply.
“We continue to wait for relief,” Lavis says.
But at this time there is no particular, overwhelming demand for that relief, and so little seems to be happening in that regard.
The good news is, at least for cotton, there seems to be an adequate labor source for the current harvest.
R. D. “Butch” Gladden says he has had little problem supplying his labor needs this year because about 75 percent of his employees have returned from the previous season.
For California cotton, the availability of labor is not as big an issue as it is for more labor-intensive crops.
Two years ago when many fields in the San Joaquin Valley sat fallow because of lack of water, some communities faced record high employment.
According to the California Employ-ment Development Department, the employment rate at the beginning of this year’s harvest was 15.4 percent, compared to 16.3 percent for the same period in 2010. The statewide employment rate for Sept. 2011 was 11.4 percent.
Health And Safety
A greater concern for most California cotton operations is the health and safety of employees.
National worker standards established by the Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are baselines for health and safety in the farm and gin industries. However, California goes a step further – often enforcing more stringent standards for effective worker safety.
California Department of Industrial Relations (Cal/OSHA) places additional requirements on dust, pesticide and heat exposure. Most cotton operations provide training and guidance for these issues.
Adriane Carbonel with Olam Cotton at Silver Creek Gin, in Firebaugh, Calif., makes sure her employees are properly trained at the beginning of the season and then throughout the harvest.
“We do a five-to-eight-hour gin safety meeting,” says Carbonel.
Training is diverse and includes first aid, personal protection and lock-out/tag-out.
State organizations such as the Arizona Cotton Ginners Association and California Cotton Growers and Ginners Association provide support for safety and equipment training sessions. The National Cotton Ginners Association also provides safety training as part of its annual gin school curriculum.
Recently, California enacted new standards for heat illness prevention. Employers must now provide access to shade and high-heat procedures for crews working in the field or on a gin yard. Cal/OSHA also requires heat stress training for all employees before they are allowed to go into the field.
As a result, many California farmers have recycled old, unused cotton trailers into portable shade and rest structures.
Brent Murphree is the Cotton Board’s Regional Communication Manager for the West. He resides in Maricopa, Ariz.