The hands that are planting, pruning, weeding, harvesting and managing tri-county crops are increasingly those of women.
As wages have gone up, the labor market has gotten tighter and the needs of the industry have changed, women have taken on roles doing everything from field work to regulatory compliance, management and increasingly technical jobs.
The exploration and adoption of new harvest technologies, substrate environments, greenhouse development and organic inputs has drawn women in from other scientific backgrounds, said Yissel Barajas, chief human resources officer at Reiter Affiliated Companies, which grows berries under the Driscoll’s label in Oxnard, the U.S. and internationally.
“Even to manage a ranch, there’s a lot more experience needed from an agronomy perspective, so I feel it has become a lot more attractive for women – and men, but especially women – to enter the ag field,” Barajas said. “The opportunities are more varied. It’s not just ranch manager or harvester. We have agronomists, communications, safety, we have human resources, finance. There are a lot more opportunities to get involved either directly being in the field or supporting field operations.”
Wages are also competitive in the berry industry, she said, which has been the top crop in the Tri-Counties for years.
“I think they compare the wages they would get somewhere else to what they’d get here,” Barajas said, highlighting benefit programs like the free health clinic and medical plan Reiter offers employees. “That’s a big attractor, health care for our employees.”
The total number of operators on California farms trended down for men and women between 2007 and 2012, the most recent year data is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the number of women held steady at about one third of total operators and 18 percent of principal operators.
In the Tri-Counties, around 20 percent of farms were run by women, but women-led farms were 40 percent smaller than the average and brought in around $102.5 million in 2012, a little more than 3 percent of the market value of products sold.
But while men made up around 70 percent of the workforce six or seven years ago, the split is now roughly equal, said Nick Estes, operations manager for Skyline Flowers in Nipomo.
Coming out of the recession, higher costs of living spurred more women to join the workforce, Estes said, and many families depend on two incomes.
Of Skyline’s seven crew leaders, three of them are female, where a few years ago there weren’t any. The entire crew covering gerbera daisies is made up of women, and one female worker in charge of three crops is moving into a role in pest management, a first for the company.
“Whoever can do the job gets the position, and that comes down to the details also,” Estes said. “If you’re in charge of eight people, you need to know all the details of the job, and there are more women that adapt to that position these days. And it may come down to society, where women are looking around and saying ‘Hey, there’s no reason we can’t do these jobs now.’”
Though they sometimes lose people to contract work in strawberries, the cut flower market enables the company to employ the same team year-round and cross-train them, providing a little more flexibility in scheduling and time off than other, seasonal crops.
Being bilingual in both Spanish and English has also helped applicants get ahead in recent years.
“A lot of our employees and, especially, the female employees, we come from a farmworker family, so I think that gives us a lot more empathy in working with a farmworker population,” Barajas said. “Our parents wanted more for us, and that’s what we want to encourage of our own workers, what opportunities could be available for their children to come back into the industry, not necessarily as farm workers. There are a lot of opportunities that they can take advantage of.”
About 40 percent of Reiter employees are female.
Social media may play a role in the change, as women see other women in the jobs and getting better pay, Estes said.
And a movement to combat sexual harassment has also made headway in the ag industry, Barajas said.
“We are focusing a lot on training not only our crew leaders and ranch managers, but also our employees, and we have a very robust program,” she said, teaching what constitutes harassment and encouraging women to report it. “Every time we have a training, we do see a lot of questions, which is good, because that means there’s more awareness about the issues.”
On International Women’s Day March 8, Martha Guerrero was celebrating 30 years with Reiter.
The career path wasn’t her original plan when she immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, Guerrero told the Business Times in an email interview. But she started to get more involved in leading a team and making the work more efficient, and she now oversees 420 acres of strawberry production.
Worker shortages continue to be a challenge in the industry, Guerrero said.
“There have been more opportunities for equality, (women) have more freedom to choose from their personal goals and abilities,” she said. “Opportunities are given with possibilities to get ahead and move up.”