Bad start to the year for berry farms as more layoffs hit
More than 400 berry workers have been laid off in Northern California as the industry struggles with labor and other cost issues.
Dole Food Co., which has been backing out of its strawberry operations in Ventura and Santa Cruz counties, will lay off another 140 raspberry workers as of Jan. 16, while Cal Pacific Specialty Foods laid off an estimated 323 workers in late November, after selling its berry processing facilities in nearby Monterey County.
The move by Cal Pacific comes after the company sold most of its assets to Titan Frozen Food, based in Santa Maria, according to a notice filed with the state Employment Development Department. The layoff notice said it was unclear whether Titan planned to rehire some or all of the workers, and officials from both companies were not immediately available to clarify.
About 300 of the Cal Pacific workers affected were employed by a labor contractor and ended their seasonal work in the fall, the notice said. They are not represented by a union. Another 23 layoffs affected supervisors and executives.
Last year, Dole laid off 402 workers at its Watsonville facility and another 172 workers in the Oxnard area. All were represented by the United Farm Workers union.
At the time, Dole spokesman William Goldfield said the moves were “part of an ongoing initiative to evaluate all berry operations to ensure they remain aligned with our growth objectives and position us to remain competitive in the marketplace.”
Growers statewide have complained of a worsening labor shortage that has pushed wages up and driven them to recruit more foreign guest workers.
In addition, new state rules that shortened the work week and require more overtime hours have added to costs, while increased restrictions on the use of fumigants also have put pressure on growers.
While raspberry production and acreage have nearly doubled in California over the last decade, strawberry acreage has declined from a 2013 peak, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
The 6% drop in acreage barely changed the tonnage of berries harvested, an indication that growers are increasing their yields — largely through the introduction of new varieties.
About 80% of the strawberries consumed nationwide come from California, according to the California Strawberry Commission.
Dole, privately held by Los Angeles billionaire David H. Murdock, 94, is the largest producer of fruit and vegetables worldwide. It has pledged to slim down its international real estate holdings and has been the target of acquisition talks after a stalled stock offering that would have taken the company public for the third time in its history.
Dole announced last year it will sell its 10-acre headquarters property in Westlake Village, and the company is trying to sell 14,800 acres of unproductive agricultural land, valued at $171 million, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Goldfield, the Dole spokesman, said he knew of no plan to relocate the Westlake Village staff to a sprawling research campus in Kannapolis, N.C., where Murdock and Dole operate research facilities.
Dole owns and operates some 124,000 acres worldwide, according to its prospectus. Just 1,600 of those acres are spread across five states in the mainland U.S., where it also leases an additional 19,000 acres, according to company records.
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