The new normal :
At farms all across the United States, farmers are facing the same problem: finding, paying, and retaining workers. Annual pruning is one of the most costly farm tasks and is best performed by workers with several years of experience.
Factors in rural Mexico are decreasing the available labor pool. The physical difficulty of pruning additionally limits the labor pool and reduces the number of productive years for workers.
It’s clear that farm labor shortage is the new normal. Few workarounds exist and U.S. foreign policy cannot adequately address the labor crisis.
An ideal solution for this problem meets these requirements:
- Increases labor pool
- Increases productivity of workers
- Lengthens number of years workers can perform pruning
- Decreases worker’s compensation premiums
Photo by Pipers Brook Vineyard - no changes were made to the photo and photo does not represent an endorsement of featured product. Read the full license.
The science and art of pruning is Slow an costly
Pruning is an essential farm task no matter what the crop. Without proper pruning, crop load can be heavily impacted resulting in lower productivity than needed or conversely an overly heavy crop load that puts strain on the plant and can reduce fruit quality. Additionally improper pruning – whether at the wrong time of year or by workers who force cuts and split canes or branches – can lead to increased risk of disease.
Across crop types, pruning is both labor-intensive and costly.
- VINEYARDS: Much of the increase in wages goes towards pruning as Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal points out, “hand pruning remains the single largest expense in vineyard operations.”
- FRUIT ORCHARDS: Depending on the production system and technology used, it takes approximately 130 to 210 man-hours to grow an acre of apples or pears annually. Cherries are even more labor intensive, ranging from 300 to 400 hours per acre. Labor is approximately 35 to 50% of the cost of producing an apple or pear, and closer to 70% of the cost of producing cherries.
- OLIVE GROVES: Pruning during heavy load years is approximately 36 hours per acre (Source: University of California Cooperative Extension, Sample Costs to Establish a Medium-Density Olive Orchard and Produce Bottled Olive Oil, 2011)
From 2014 to 2018 the number of farms increasing wages in order to attract more labor has increased from 31% to 80% according to a study conducted by UC Davis and the California Farm Bureau Federation in January 2019. Furthermore, this same study showed that in order to keep the farm labor supply from decreasing any further, farm labor wages would need to increase 30% over the next 10 years.
VANISHING: MEXICAN FARM LABOR STEADILY DECREASING
A growing body of evidence shows that America’s traditionally steady immigrant farm labor workforce from Mexico is decreasing and that the factors involved are beyond the reach of US foreign policy.
There are 1.3 million US farm workers of which 73% are immigrants. A stunning 90% of these immigrant farm workers originate from Mexico. However, the Mexican government’s increase in rural education spending and a variety of other factors are decreasing the available labor supply to US farms including:
- Falling birth rates in Mexico
- Decrease in number of youth following parents into farm work
- Expanding non-farm sectors and higher education levels drawing workers out of farm work to higher paying jobs
- Increased border control leading to higher coyote fees to smuggle workers across the border
Mexico itself is undergoing a transformation as a labor exporter to importer. Guatemalan birth rates remain high and a study from 2012 found that an estimated 355,000 border crossings each year from Guatemala to Mexico were related to agricultural work.1
As countries develop, agricultural employment decreases as shown by this comparison of the US and Mexico showing 1997-2017
“In the 1960s, Mexican women had nearly 7 children each. Today they have just over 2 – about the same as women in the United States”2
In addition to factors within Mexico, migrant workers who cross the border to the US are choosing non-farm jobs more frequently. Some of this is explained by the higher border crossing fees which causes immigrants to seek higher paying jobs to pay off coyote smugglers. This trend is also explained by the improved working conditions and promise of year-round employment that accompanies non-farm jobs in the US.
According to a 2019 study, “In California and the Pacific Coast regions, the share of farm workers who will engage in nonfarm work is predicted to increase sharply over the next 20 years.”3 Experts in Agricultural Economics recommend mitigating against this trend by mechanizing and involving more female workers.3
Physically demanding work limits labor pool
The physically tough work involved in pruning limits the labor pool and increases farming costs as shown below:
- Number of years workers can prune is prematurely shortened
- Repetitive Motion Injuries (RMIs) result in lost time
- RMIs and other critical pruning injuries increase worker’s compensation claims
- RMIs decrease worker productivity
- Available labor pool is primarily limited to men
Although women are commonly involved in nearly every aspect of farming from planting and harvest through shoot thinning and fruit sorting, pruning remains a physically demanding task that has been almost exclusively performed by men. This fact alone cuts the labor available for pruning by 50%.
Furthermore, workers performing pruning tasks are at higher risk for catastrophic injuries (i.e. finger amputation) and Repetitive Motion Injuries which typically result in tendonitis, carpal tunnel or rotator cuff injuries depending on the crop type.
Both amputations and RMIs can prematurely end the number of years workers are able to perform pruning duties. In the case of RMIs, farm owners have typically already invested many years in training the worker to become an expert pruner and lose this expertise when the worker is injured. Worker’s compensation costs increase after an injury but it also incurs further costs to the farm owner as they must search for new employees and invest significant time training a new worker.
Preventing an initial injury is crucial as a study from Purdue University showed that workers are 39% more likely to reinjure themselves on the farm as a result of working after an initial injury.5
1 in 4 lost-time injuries and illnesses reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics was linked to a Repetitive Strain Injury
An ideal solution would include all these capabilities:
- Increases productivity and efficiency
- Adapts to a variety of farm needs
- Extends the number of years expertly trained workers can continue pruning
- Opens pruning labor pool to more workers regardless of sex or age
- Makes farm work more appealing to workers
- Eliminates both catastrophic and Reptitive Motion Injuries
- Decreases worker’s compensation claims
- Requires minimum maintenance or management
A product has been purpose-built to meet all of these exacting needs for farm owners. It’s called the Electrocoup pruning shear.
What is the Electrocoup?
The Electrocoup electric pruning shear is the product of over 35 years of research and development. Because the Electrocoup makes pruning easy on the body, it naturally leads to productivity increases that alleviate labor concerns.
The shear is the lightest shear in the world for its cutting capacity. Two cutting modes are available including a proportional mode that intuitively follows the motion of the user’s trigger finger and allows for precision work such as cutting just one cane even if it is close to a wire or a second cane. The new design also allows for a wider angle of vision which is especially helpful in tight spaces
Users can adapt height range and cutting capacity to meet individual farm needs.
- Poles: Carbon-fiber poles ranging from 4’ to 11’5”
- Interchangeable Heads: The head of the shear can be changed to increase cutting capacity from 40 mm to 45mm or 55 mm.
Because the shear uses a brushless motor, Infaco was able to decrease both the weight and the diameter of the barrel by 26%. These are two of the improvements that make this the most ergonomic shear in the world.
An ultra-compact lithium-ion battery allows workers to prune for an entire work day without ever recharging and is small enough to put in a pocket. It also features a cell protection and electronic management system to prevent battery memory issues.
Charge time is 90 minutes. The included charger safeguards the lithium-ion battery from memory issues in two ways:
- Every full charge cycle includes cell rebalancing
- A hibernation mode allows users to optimize the battery for long-term storage. In hibernation mode, the battery can sit unused for 12 months with no battery memory issues.
“We replaced three tools. Obviously you’ve got a benefit because you don’t have to switch tools. You can do it once with an Infaco pruner.”
- Cherrylake Nursery
Expect the RIPPLE EFFECT
The shear’s combined impact of ergonomics, versatility, safety, and power has a ripple effect throughout any farm
- Attract the best workers. Workers chose to work and stay at farms that provide the best working conditions by making their tasks easier and safer.
- Double the labor pool. Removing the physical difficulty from the task of pruning provides entry into the field of pruning to a larger pool of workers regardless of age or sex.
- Retain expertise. As employees age, pruning will be a task that they are physically able to continue performing allowing farms to retain expert pruners and pass that expertise on to new generations of employees.
- Save Money. When the work is easier, workers are less fatigued and are naturally are able to increase productivity by making more cuts per day. Human Resources expenses also decrease as farms spend less time sourcing, training, and replacing employees. Workers compensation premiums decrease as injuries decrease.
LABOR-SAVING TECH = BIG RETURNS
Switching to an electric shear has a ripple effect throughout a farm resulting in cost-savings for all aspects of human resources but it also provides for concrete savings by reducing the number of hours required to prune.
Real client example factoring in the average productivity increase for a vineyard of 30%.
|Labor cost per hour||$16.00||$16.00|
|Labor time per day (hours)||8||8|
|Number of days per week||6||6|
|Average vines pruned per day||400||520|
|Number of workers pruning||6||4|
|Number of pruning weeks per year||8||8|
|Labor cost per season||$36,864||$27,307|
|Pruning shear investment per year per worker||$50||$668|
|Equipment cost per season||$300||$2969|
|TOTAL COST PER SEASON||$37,164||$30,276|
|TOTAL SAVINGS PER SEASON||$6,888|
Real client trial demonstrating a productivity increase of 40%
|No. of trees pruned per day using manual shears||No. of trees pruned per day using Electrocoup|
CONCLUSION: Save Effort, Save Time, Save Money
A variety of factors are shrinking the available immigrant labor pool from Mexico including increased border control, Mexican investment in rural education, and declining birth rates. As Mexico transitions to a farm labor importer, farm labor wages in the US will need to continue to increase to keep a consistent labor supply.
To stay profitable, farmers will increasingly need to turn to mechanized solutions for labor-intensive tasks such as pruning both to reduce the number of workers needed and to eliminate lost-time injuries. The Electrocoup electric pruning shear is a solution that significantly extends the number of years workers are able to prune, helps to attract and retain the best workers, and increases worker productivity.
The Electrocoup pruning shear increases pruning productivity by 30% or more. To find out more, or to try it yourself, call 800-425-8809.
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