Labor remains the biggest single issue afflicting Florida growers, as many growers contacted report problems with securing enough workers to pick and pack their crops during the 2012-13 season.
And many say the situation has only worsened.
“We had a challenge with labor this past season, which impacted growers’ profitability,” says Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wish Farms in Plant City. “The markets stayed pretty good through March, but labor remained a challenge through the entire season. The lack of labor really kept a lid on supply. The fact that we didn’t have enough labor to go around propped market prices up a little.”
Labor shortages not only affected Wish Farms’ strawberries, but the supply of workers was also tight for the grower-shipper’s spring vegetable deal, Wishnatzki says.
In the Indian River citrus growing region, growers didn’t experience many issues with labor, says Dan Richey, chief executive officer of Riverfront Groves LLC in Vero Beach.
“We had an adequate force to harvest and pack our crop,” he says. “We didn’t see any major shortages.”
One reason citrus apparently fares well with labor could be its long nine-month season compared with shorter-season crops, including strawberries, Richey says.
‘Labor is still very tough’
Labor was difficult for many central Florida growers.
“Labor is still very tough,” says Steve O'Brien, vice president of C&D Fruit & Vegetable Co. Inc. in Bradenton. “It was extremely tight. There was no way you ever had enough workers. It was much better than the year prior.”
But labor problems didn’t affect Florida’s blueberry deal.
“The labor situation was pretty good,” says Bill Braswell, president of the Bartow-based Florida Blueberry Growers Association. “The biggest issue was the workers were thinking the typical timetable that everyone was thinking for Georgia and come May, would need to leave to begin picking there. So we lost a lot of pickers, though there wasn’t a lot of crop left to pick here.”
Braswell, owner of the Auburndale.-based Polkdale Farms and Juliana Plantation and farm manager of Bartow-based Clear Springs Packing LLC, says many workers returned from Georgia to resume Florida harvesting.
Ken Wiles, sales manager and general manager for Mack Farms Inc. in Lake Wales, says members of the South Florida Potato Growers Association reported no labor problems.
Labor isn’t often an issue for growers of South Florida’s avocados and tropicals, says Peter Leifermann, director of sales and fruit procurement for Brooks Tropicals LLC in Homestead.
“We have a base of year-round agriculture, so when we’re not picking tropical fruit, there are tomatoes, squash and beans to harvest,” he says. “The labor doesn’t go north when the production moves north on the vegetables. We’re in a situation where we don’t need so much itinerant labor.”
Leifermann says many workers choose to remain in the Homestead area.