Talbott diversifies family peach business to deal with labor shortage
August 10, 2018
Despite some heat stress to the trees, Bruce Talbott, Palisade, Colo., said the peach harvest is plentiful at an estimated 90 percent tree capacity. Harvest will continue to mid-September, although August is the hottest harvest month. Labor remains a concern for Talbott and his fellow peach growers but diversification could serve as one way to ease marketing woes.
Sweet cider has been one of the Talbott family's offerings since 1983 but they have recently added hard cider, wines, and a tap house. It is one way Talbott is including the next generation in the operation while labor concerns continue to loom large.
Labor is a perennial concern for Talbott and he said the H-2A program, the program that oversees temporary agricultural workers, remains cumbersome.
"My last guys are supposed to show up next week," he said. "They were supposed to show up in February if that gives you an idea of how the program runs."
Most major peach growers participate in the H-2A program, one Talbott said he would like to see become easier to navigate and participate in. The area has long hosted temporary laborers and many have housing in place from years of doing so. Housing requirements, though, are such that even Talbott's own home wouldn't qualify as acceptable.
"If you think about Arkansas or Louisiana swampland and the housing you would have to have under those conditions to keep everybody healthy is kind of what they've done to the entire nation," he said. "It's not that it's onerous, it's just silly stuff and it's one of those kinds of things you just have to comply whether it makes sense or not doesn't really matter."
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Rules become even more difficult to follow when they are an everchanging target, he said. OSHA rules and Department of Labor rules are different so what could be a reasonable option to purchase labor housing from the disbanded labor camps in the mountains at a low cost, becomes illegal as the bedroom space is inadequate for farm laborers.
"For industry, they're fine but for farm workers, they're not big enough," he said.
For some growers, renting hotels has become a more viable option to provide housing that is acceptable in the H-2A program.
In previous years, Talbott has participated in exchange programs with a university in Japan and worker travel. The worker travel program, he said, is not an agriculture program and agriculture, manufacturing and a few other industries were deemed less-than-healthy cultural experiences during the Obama administration.
"Rather than make ourselves the potential target for some kind of a problem, we closed those programs," he said.
The majority of Talbott's H-2A workers hail from Mexico with a few from Honduras, all through the Monterrey consulate. Under H-2A, workers may not stay in the states for more than 10 months, which isn't an issue for the peach industry. However, for the dairy and livestock sectors of agriculture, it leaves the problem of timing.
Not to be confused with immigration, a guest worker program would allow workers to come to the United States to make a living and return to their home country. Talbott likens it to young men hoping to make a fortune on the Alaskan pipeline, working for several years, and then returning to the lower 48.
"To me, labor is our No. 1 issue," he said. "We have lots of challenges in agriculture in general, but labor is big."
Talbott said Sakata Farms in Brighton faced labor challenges that ultimately led to the closing of the famous sweet corn operation, and he also sees it in places like Pueblo where the number of acres planted hinge upon the number of workers available.
"(They're) not going to plant more than they can harvest because there's no point in doing that," he said. "People are making a lot of farm decisions based on the presence or absence of labor."
Without an indigenous supply of labor to grow the necessary food to feed the nation inside its borders, Talbott said the likelihood is high that the growing of the crops will be moved to the countries with the labor.
"There's a lot of reasons for that but that's a big one," he said. "Seasonal labor is hard work but seasonal is the real destroyer. It's not a career."
Talbott said the move from one seasonal job to the next is difficult, especially for families.
Family, in fact, is at the root of Talbott's business. His son, Charles', return to the operation prompted the beginning of the hard cider production and marketing. Along with Talbott's cousin's son-in-law, Christopher, the two took advantage of their beer brewing expertise and their locale, to begin brewing hard cider.
"They were looking for a niche, we were already producing sweet cider, and it made sense as we're already vertically integrated here, to go ahead and go into the hard cider," he said.
In a time when hard ciders are hip, the timing was ripe to jump in. There are a number of competitors in that area but Talbott said the timing to enter and become entrenched was an advantage. Talbott is pleased with the growth and said the hard cider will soon be self-sustaining. It also was a good fit for his daughter, Hannah's, marketing skills and those skills have been put to use in the marketing of both the hard ciders and wines.
The wines, geared more toward canned and kegged for restaurant use, are not pretentious but meant to be fun. That vibe is obvious in their names like Palisade Plunge Red, Grow a Pear and Scrappy Apple.
The Talbott's tap house opened at their retail location in July, serving hard cider and a cider experience featuring ciders from other producers in the state on tap.
"The idea is that you can come here and see the entire Colorado cider scene and taste your way through it," he said. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.