In the summer months, Flor Sanchez and the members of her harvest crew rise before dawn and arrive at a cherry orchard in Washington state’s Yakima Valley when there is only the slightest hint of daylight.
“We use headlamps,” she says, to carry ladders to the trees. Climbing up into the branches to harvest the ripe fruit in near-darkness, she says, “seems a little dangerous.” Headlamps cast shadows that can make it difficult to see the fruit. Setting up ladders in the dark also poses a danger.
Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns with United Farm Workers, says for field crops like onions and garlic, harvesting at night by headlamp or flood lights poses less risk than picking tree fruit because ladders aren’t needed, the short plants don’t create shadows, and workers know exactly what to pick even if they can’t completely see what they’re doing. The produce itself is also more durable. Winegrape harvest also often takes place at night.
When it’s time for harvest, “it’s a welcome shift for the entire crew to be able to work in the cool of the night.”
Across super-hot regions, nocturnal harvest, as Strater calls the practice, has become increasingly common. As climate change pushes summer temperatures higher on more consecutive days, and scientists are forecasting even warmer years ahead, more workers may find themselves in the field at night and in the early morning hours. And while some safety measures have been put in place, more data is needed to assess the challenges workers face.
Sanchez says she has only worked an overnight harvest shift once. “It’s complicated and dangerous,” she says, though she knows others are working them more often.
Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, says overnight shifts are disruptive and generally undesirable.
“We’ve had a number of orchardists offer nighttime work—it’s usually as an offer more than a demand,” he says, because when cherries are ready and need to be harvested, cooler temperatures overnight reduce the risk that the skin will tear. High heat during the day softens the fruit and makes this type of damage more likely, he says. DeVaney says, in general, workers are less productive during overnight shifts because they’re tired and it’s harder to do the job. Scheduling surprises also interrupt home life. But overnight temperatures can be more comfortable, and they generally stay below the threshold that triggers additional precautions for outdoor workers facing heat-related stress and illness, which can be appealing to some workers and employers alike.
At Stolpman Vineyards in the Ballard Canyon area of Santa Barbara County, California, nocturnal harvest has long been the norm. Pete Stolpman, who runs the operation, says it’s been more than 20 years that the three-month harvest from mid-August to mid-November has been conducted entirely overnight.
“It’s for the quality of fruit,” he says. When the temperature can drop as much as 40 degrees from the daytime high, the fruit itself cools and he says that makes for a better-quality grape and, ultimately, wine. But beginning with his father before him, he says equal attention has been paid to employing people in a consistent, year-round way that gives them a career, not just a seasonal job.
What’s critical to making it all work, he adds, is lights. “We’ve fabricated light poles on all of our fruit trailers and tractors that can illuminate four rows of vines each,” he says, “and then every crew member wears a headlamp.”
While night workers are entitled to all the same rest, bathrooms, and water breaks as day workers, Stolpman says the overnight work can offer a reprieve from the extreme heat of the summer. Before harvest, he says the workday typically starts at dawn and wraps up just as the temperatures reach uncomfortable highs. When it’s time for harvest, “it’s a welcome shift for the entire crew to be able to work in the cool of the night.”
New Regulations, Sparse Data
Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado currently have regulations to protect agricultural workers during extreme heat. Maryland and Nevada are working on rules of their own. (The consulting firm Venable has published an overview of state rules, which include variations from indoor-only regulations for high temperatures to outdoor rules that exclude farmworkers.) The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is in the throes of establishing a rule that would apply nationally.
But night and early morning work poses another set of challenges. In 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1,350 people suffered non-fatal injuries between the hours of 8pm and 8am.
According to a 2019 fact sheet from The UC Davis Western Center on Agriculture Health and Safety, “The general, unofficial consensus among a number of professionals involved in agriculture is that night work is increasing.” Yet there has been very little data collected about how the shift in timing to avoid heat might be impacting workers.