California farmers find that what helps workers helps productivity

Rob Cartwright is well liked in the fields around here. As he makes his rounds through Tejon Farming Company's neat, parklike almond groves at the waning of harvest season, a young woman on a raking crew pulls the scarf from around her face to tell him she is getting married soon. She asks him to be godfather to her firstborn.

Another woman tells him she and her husband are trying to buy a house, so he gives her his card to show to a mortgage lender, so that Mr. Cartwright can act as a reference.

This kind of goodwill between grower and farm worker is part of the gospel Cartwright preaches.

Cartwright is a wiry, good-natured fellow who looks like a farmer and speaks fluent Spanish, having spent most of his school years in southern Mexico. As personnel manager for Tejon Farming Company and president of the two-year-old Association of Agricultural Personnel Managers (APMA), Cartwright is one of the voices in California agriculture sounding the virtues of what is summed up as ''modern personnel management.''

Bland is not necessarily bad on the California farm labor scene. In fields and orchards with a history as full of strife as California's, modern personnel management is an effort to bring farm-labor relations up nearer the standards of the modern factory.

The idea is to promote a more stable relationship between growers and farm workers. It means training employees to work more than one crop and planning the jobs to provide employment for as long each year as possible. It means paying better benefits, offering upward mobility, and seeking experienced workers to return each year.

Managers like Cartwright are not likely to revolutionize California farming. In fact, for some of the pioneers in this philosophy - lemon growers in Ventura County - it has been a mixed blessing. Productivity is up, but companies' ability to operate competitively is down.

Several things work against them in their efforts to encourage better treatment of workers. One is the current flood of illegal aliens fleeing Mexico's weak economy and swamping the farm labor market. Another is the tough economic straits the state's growers have endured in the last few years, making some less willing to invest more in their workers. Another is outright skepticism that a more generous approach to workers is good for growers.

California farms have always been different. The industrial revolution that replaced farmhands with combines in the nation's breadbasket and continues to cut labor costs never went nearly as far here.

Some things machines still can't do as well as people. In a Tejon Ranch almond orchard, machines move down the rows of trees shaking each trunk, rattling the almonds to the ground. But the harvesters follow with long yellow poles to knock stubborn nuts from the limbs. A mechanical sweeper comes along and sweeps them into windrows in a cloud of dust. But then come the women wearing scarves around their faces, raking stray almonds out of niches in the ground.

All in all, labor comprises 20 percent of California's crop-producing cost - roughly three times that for American agriculture overall. Every year at harvest time, California growers need four or five times more workers than they have on hand to get the crop to market. The system is tough for growers because they are stung by occasional worker shortages. It's tough on farm workers because for most it means a casual, migrant worklife with a short season.

Both sides could benefit from stability and from stronger ties between the farm and the farm worker, according to growers like Cartwright.

This is a notion that some farms have practiced for decades and others express no interest in. But there are strong indications that grower interest is picking up. The reasons:

* The rise of the United Farm Workers. Union contracts are not widespread (perhaps 10 percent of the work force), but employers have raised wages and conditions to avoid being unionized.

* The need to stabilize the labor supply so that immigration reform doesn't leave them scrambling for workers, as at the end of the ''bracero'' guest-worker program in the early 1960s.

* The growth of nonfarm corporate investment in California agriculture has brought more sophisticated personnel practices to the farm.

At Tejon, minimum wage is $5 an hour. Some workers earn $8 to $11 an hour working piece rates. The company pays about 30 percent over wages in benefits, including vacation pay (4 percent of gross earnings), 61/2 holidays a year, a family health-insurance plan, and retirement.

Most workers return to the ranks every year. Cartwright figures this saves the company 30,000 to 40,000 man-hours in training, gives him better skilled workers, and makes for fewer on-the-job injuries.

''Retraining people over and over every year is very inefficient,'' he says. That, he says, is the fallacy of the guest-worker idea, which most farm managers support.

There is another important side to all this. The United Farm Workers have held two elections here to win the right to represent Tejon workers, once in 1974 and again in '75. The union lost both. Cartwright says in many union victories, the main issue is worker treatment.

The union itself is skeptical of the modern managers. Much of the new technology, like computerized personnel files, are just better ways of union busting, says Frank Ortiz, director of crop managers at UFW headquarters in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Nevertheless, there are at least some delicate sprouts of change on the farm labor scene. John Mamer, an agricultural cooperative extension economist, started a program for farm managers five years ago to improve farm employment.

Then, two years ago the APMA was formed to spread the gospel of enlightened personnel management, and since then it has grown to 350 members, representing about 175 farm companies.

Al Guilin is executive vice-president of Limoneira, a 2,000-acre citrus grower in Ventura County. He and Jack Lloyd, general manager of a Ventura County harvesting cooperative, Coastal Growers Association, were pioneers in improving labor practices in the middle 1960s.

Both screen out illegal aliens from their work forces, and offer benefits sufficient to attract legal workers. The payoff, they say, is productivity. In the last year of the bracero program, Mr. Lloyd notes, each worker picked 3.4 boxes of lemons an hour. Now each picks 9.8 an hour. The major technological advance since then was curved clippers that make it easier to cut down the lemons.

Employment at Limoneira varies from 500 pickers at peak to a low of 250. The company houses 80 percent of its workers, even during peak hiring, in well-kept little cottages built in the '20s and '30s, with generous common lawns, playgrounds, and gardens. The houses rent for $60 a month plus lights and gas.

A concern among growers now is that the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform bill now stalled in Congress could create the same kind of shortage the end of the bracero program brought on.

''I don't care what anybody says,'' says Bradley H. Troxel, industrial relations director at Tenneco West in Bakersfield, ''I don't think unemployed Americans are going to flock to the fields.'' Unemployment has been 10-13 percent in Kern County, he notes, and during the peak farm hiring season, unemployment was still 10 percent.

Mr. Troxel represents something of a growing breed of personnel professionals in California farming. He came to Bakersfield three years ago from a Tenneco West plant near Akron, Ohio, that manufactured corrugated boxes. He aims to run the farming division as an extension of the corporation, using factory-style personnel practice. The farming division of Tenneco West (one of four) grows crops from cotton to grapes to asparagus on 30,000 acres, employing about 4,000 farm workers at peak.

Troxel has consolidated three ranches into one, for payroll purposes, to make farm jobs last longer each year. Personnel files have recently been computerized , which will make it easier to track good employees and hire them back, among other advantages, such as tracking chemicals in the fields for crew safety.

Overall, labor relations on the farm have some maturing to do, he suggests - its development stunted perhaps due to a largely migrant and uneducated work force. ''We have to face the fact that this industry, like textiles and others, has abused the work force.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.