Seasonal Labor is the Engine that Drives Grow West and its Customers
Seasonal labor is fundamental to California agriculture. That’s why planning and budgeting for it at Grow West — in the field, on the road and elsewhere — happens well in advance and is virtually a year-round effort. It takes attention to sustaining and building upon the relationships so important to the ag retailer and service provider’s ability to maintain the right workforce at the right times and in the right places.
Seasonal labor is sometimes relegated to temporary job status that stigmatizes what’s an important part of the engine powering agriculture in places like the Sacramento Valley. Grow West Human Resources Vice President Samantha Hanley knows well the importance of and challenges inherent to seasonal workers to her company and its customers. That’s why she treats seasonal workers just like she does any other full-time member of the Grow West workforce.
It’s an issue close to Hanley’s heart; she’s the fourth generation of her family who’s helped connect seasonal laborers with the right jobs to workers’ and employers’ mutual benefit. Eighty years ago, her great-grandparents provided education, lodging and seasonal ag jobs around Solano County, including their own tomato farm.
Provide what seasonal workers need to be successful
Hanley knows the critical roles skilled, well-prepared seasonal workers play in an ag business, whether a retailer like Grow West or one of the retailer’s customers. It’s shaped the strategy she leads in making sure Grow West has the seasonal workers it needs to perform some of its major duties at the busiest times of the growing season.
“I always approach it as a relationship even if you’re bringing someone on for a one-year seasonal job. Be mindful of how you’re hiring, when you’re hiring and the relationships that you’re building,” Hanley said. “Treat your seasonal employees very similar to how you treat your regular full-time employees.”
Planning and budgeting for seasonal labor at Grow West includes jobs like seasonal warehouse personnel, wholesale plant operators, interns, Class A over-the-road truck drivers and other machinery operators. When preparing budgets for the year ahead, Hanley carefully considers not just cost, but projected need based on range of variables like recent crop production, weather conditions and water allocations. Variables like these contribute to accurately budgeting and planning for seasonal labor, even months before it’s needed.
“We compare hourly labor from the last three years, including overtime we’ve paid, so we know roughly what we’ll need in the coming year and budget for our seasonal labor needs,” Hanley said. “We also plan based on what we know our customers will be planting. Last year, our seasonal labor decreased significantly at some locations because of water allocations. We must be mindful of what our customers are doing and make sure we have the right resources allocated for them.”
Preparing seasonal workers for their specific jobs is massively important to avoiding liability at the busiest times of the year. Grow West has some seasonal workers who have been with the company for more than 20 years, so they have close relationships with the location managers with whom they’ve worked all that time. That makes it easy for them to “ramp up” to their jobs. Others may require more in-depth training.
“Take the extra time to make sure that they’re trained, because you want to make sure they’re prepared so they can be productive in the time they’re working with you,” Hanley said. “Your full-time employees may have a full month to get ramped up into the busy season versus your seasonal workers who jump right in when you bring them in. You have to make sure they’re prepared ahead of time.”
Work together with industry partners
While strong relationships contribute to longstanding seasonal worker agreements, so do industry partnerships. Grow West has several seasonal workers who are also part of the labor force for a local tomato processor and packer who transports tomatoes from the field to canneries. Some workers split time between the two, providing consistent seasonal work at times when both companies need it most.
“I can name at least three or four seasonal workers who have been with us for 20 years. Many have been with us at least five years. A lot of times, what starts with word of mouth turns into family members joining us later on,” Hanley said. “We also have relationships with trucking companies and processors. We have some workers who will work seasonally out of our Maxwell location for a few months then join Morning Star for jobs like tomato harvest. Strong industry partnerships help.”
Improvements in rainfall and snowpack runoff have growers transitioning back to more “normal” cropping plans after drought-driven cutbacks in recent years. It’s a clear signal that seasonal labor will be in higher demand. Because of its leadership team’s planning and budgeting, Hanley said Grow West is prepared for the 2023 growing season.
“Because we’ve had a very wet year, we knew as far back as January that we’re going to have more water allocated. By February, we had a better idea of our seasonal worker numbers. A lot depends on what our customers are doing,” Hanley said. “We’re fortunate to have relationships and connections with many of our seasonal workers. And we treat our employees well. When you do that, people want to come back and work for you.”