Jun 19, 2007
Outlook Mixed for Supply of Workers

The shortage of farm workers growers had been fearing had not shown up by Memorial Day. And with Congress hotly debating new immigration policy that might take the pressure off the thousands of undocumented seasonal workers, growers were decidedly less nervous.

There were some early-season scares. When it came time to pick asparagus in Michigan about May 1, growers were not able to keep up with the harvest.

“There’s a major problem out there,” Todd Greiner said. “There is asparagus being mowed down because there is no labor to pick it. It’s real bad.

“Growers come in and want to know if we know of any workers available. We tell them we’re having a hard time on our own farm. We do have an ample supply in the packing shed.”

In Michigan, asparagus is a bellwether crop – the first to dip into the migrant worker stream for harvest labor – so a labor shortage affecting asparagus didn’t augur well for fruit and vegetable crops next in line.

John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, began hearing reports of labor shortages in Oceana County about May 8. In Oceana County, the leading producer in Michigan with about 15,000 of the state’s 25,000 acres, asparagus spears begin emerging about May 1.

But by May 20, Bakker said growers had “been doing just fine. We caught a break from the weather, which slowed harvest down. We’re still short of workers, but we have about 90 percent of the work force we need.”

In asparagus production, spears are snapped off by hand when they reach 5 to 8 inches tall. Weather determines how often picking must take place, but on a warm day spears can elongate half an inch an hour, Bakker said. Daily picking can be needed.

If sufficient labor isn’t available, spears grow less tender and the tips open, making them unsellable. At some point, a grower would decide to mow off an unharvested field and start over.

Mowing, Bakker said, takes off all growing spears and sets harvest back five to seven days, or about 2-1/2 pickings.

“The third and fourth pickings are usually the largest,” he said. “We can easily lose 20 percent of the crop in a single mowing.”

Prices were looking good this year. Bakker and Greiner said packers were eager to get all the product they could. Prices for processing product were running about 61 cents a pound and about 80 cents for fresh.

“In Oceana County, this crop is our livelihood,” Greiner said. “We just bought new automated equipment to pack fresh asparagus, but we need product to pack.”

The Michigan asparagus industry has been suffering in recent years, mostly because asparagus from Peru has been displacing Michigan asparagus in the processed market. Historically, some 95 percent of Michigan’s 25 million pounds of annual production goes for canning or freezing.

Todd Greiner Farms Packing has been responding to that challenge, building capacity for growers to put more of the vegetable into the fresh market. The company packs much of what it grows, plus production from about 30 other growers – about 1.5 million pounds in all.

In Florida, a worker shortage would be experienced earlier, since that state is the first to dip the net into the migrant stream, while Michigan is usually among the last. Lisa Lochridge, director of communications for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said the labor supply this spring has been good.

“We have not seen the number of shortages we had seen in recent years.”

She said there were several reasons.

First, damage from hurricanes that struck Florida the last two years has been largely repaired. The hurricanes had created a huge boom in the residential construction industry, which drew away agricultural workers.

Second, damage to the citrus crop reduced demand for workers, making more available to harvest strawberries and tomatoes.

Third, more growers were getting workers through the H-2A visa program, relying less on traditional sources of seasonal labor.

In California, strawberry growers had trouble filling their crews and had to direct some berries from fresh market to processing, according to Dave Kranz, director of communications for the California Farm Bureau. But in general, there were no reports of massive shortages.

“We’re still in the process of surveying our members about what they anticipate,” he said.

Fears of worker shortages had induced some growers to shift away from labor-intensive crops, he said.

The true test of labor supply in California comes with the start of tender fruit harvest and grape harvest, then peaks in August and September, he said.

“Things start to build as we gradually add crops.”

Cool and rainy weather last year reduced crop size and labor demand so growers were able to get by, he said. This year, crops are larger – except for citrus affected by freezes earlier this year.

Growers are generally encouraged by the movement of the U.S. Senate to reform immigration law, especially the inclusion of agricultural workers as part of the package, he said.

“Everyone wants to have a legal workforce,” he said.

Kranz said it is critical for growers that workers from Mexico be able to cross the border easily. The emphasis on border enforcement the last year or two created a situation where workers could not migrate, he said. So, once they successfully crossed the border, they stayed in the United States – creating the need to find year-round work.

Many who would normally have worked in agriculture instead shifted to the restaurant and hospitality industries or into construction, lured by all the work created by the hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast.

In Georgia, the Easter freezes wiped out blueberries and peaches, set back sweet corn and took out the early melons, which needed to be replanted. That, plus a drought that’s the worst in history for this time of year, has made labor somewhat moot as an early season issue, according to Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

“We haven’t heard any growers complain of a shortage of labor yet,” he said.

Like other association executives, he’s still studying the 900-page immigration bill being debated by the Senate. Like many, he believes good law regulating immigration and provisions for seasonal foreign workers for agriculture will do much to calm grower nerves and set a good foundation for produce production in this country.

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