Dec 19, 2013
Growers anticipating labor shortages for harvest

In August, fruit and vegetable growers were preparing for harvest, and many were wondering if they would have enough workers for the busy fall season. Stepped-up federal immigration enforcement and immigration-reform legislation that appeared to be in limbo in Congress contributed to their uncertainty.

“No one knows where this is going,” said Michael Geary, executive director of the Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association.

Geary had heard that some Ohio growers were experiencing labor shortages. Until the immigration situation gets sorted out and growers know they’ve secured a reliable labor supply, they’re going to have a hard time planning for the future, he said.

National statistics only give part of the story: Farm operators hired 732,000 workers for the week of April 7-13, down 2 percent from the same period in 2012, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

By late July, however, the supply of workers for labor-intensive crops – which include fruits and vegetables – appeared to have reached “critical lows,” according to Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Gasperini blamed the lows on continuing immigration enforcement, state-specific laws, the aging of existing farm workers and an overall improving economy. He’d heard from dozens of growers from around the country, who told him that fewer workers than expected were showing up for planting and harvest, that H-2A guest workers were delayed and farm-labor contractors were supplying fewer people than requested – and they were arriving later or leaving earlier than hoped for.

Growers in New York and Michigan had additional concerns.

Because weather destroyed roughly half their crop in 2012, New York’s apple growers didn’t need as many pickers last fall. They’ll need more pickers this fall, but in August there were worries that not enough would show up. It wasn’t a “panic situation” at that point, but there were definitely concerns, said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association.

“If a grower needs 20 and 16 show up, it starts to become a problem,” Allen said.

Craig Anderson, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Agricultural Labor and Safety Services program, said there’s an expanded need for workers in agriculture right now, but also greater pressure on the labor supply. That pressure has been felt for a few years, but seems to be squeezing tighter.

In August, Anderson was hearing of an overall worker shortage of roughly 10 percent for Michigan’s fruit and vegetable growers. For certain crops at certain times, however, the labor shortfalls were in the 30 to 50 percent range.

There were some early challenges with Michigan blueberries, for example. Blueberries on the East Coast were still being harvested during Michigan’s early crop, leading to some spot shortages. As the East Coast harvest wound down, however, harvesters started showing up in Michigan blueberry fields. Would some of them move on to apples before blueberry season was over? That’s the kind of question growers were asking themselves. It’s a challenge for them to predict the exact number of workers they will need at the exact time they will need them, Anderson said.

He said there are multiple reasons for the labor shortages. The U.S. border with Mexico, for all practical purposes, has been shut down. Greater enforcement by the federal government, and fear of greater enforcement by state governments, are combining to put significant pressure on the traditional migratory worker stream. Also, because of year-round sporting activities, fewer local teenagers can commit to harvest work.

Growers in Michigan don’t use farm-labor contractors to a great extent, and only about 250 of the state’s estimated 49,000 agricultural workers come from the H-2A program, Anderson said.

In contrast, use of H-2A workers in Florida appeared to have increased “dramatically” in 2013, said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Florida growers were increasing their use of H-2A because of concerns over a lack of domestic labor, Carlton said.

Matt Milkovich

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