Growers fear possibility of skilled labor shortage

07/20/2012 12:41:00 PM
Tom Burfield

A quick survey of several berry grower-shippers indicates that labor may be tight in some places this summer, but most companies will have enough workers to harvest their crops.

Nonetheless, nearly all growers are concerned about the future and think the U.S. must come up with a workable plan to ensure adequate agricultural labor is available down the road.

“Labor has been an ongoing problem,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer for Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla.

“We’re a little bit unsettled about going forward,” he said.

“It seems that this could become a bigger and bigger problem in the next several years.”

Wishnatzki planned to attend a symposium in early July, where he would serve on a panel to consider possible solutions to pass along to members of Congress.

Curry & Co. LLC, Brooks, Ore., did not anticipate labor problems this season, but Mike Klackle, vice president of berry sales, said, “It is an issue.”

Leaders must do something to resolve that issue, he said.

“The powers to be best wake up,” he said. “The American food supply is in jeopardy here.”

Some growers have turned to mechanization, but that won’t solve the problem, said Brian Ostlund, executive director for the Oregon Blueberry Commission, Salem.

“There is no end in sight for the need for farm labor,” he said. “For agriculture in general, an adequate and legal labor force is critical to our future.”

Debby Wechsler, executive secretary for the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association, Pittsboro., N.C., echoed that sentiment.

“We need a fair and effective guest worker policy,” she said.

Labor shortages were a serious problem in Georgia last year where fear of the state’s labor laws caused workers to avoid it in droves, she said.

Fresh market raspberries and blackberries can’t be machine harvested, so growers had to ship product to processors for a much lower price than they would have gotten for fresh, handpicked berries, she said.

Experienced labor is especially important for cane berries, she said.

“Not only are they hand-harvested, but they have to be harvested by somebody who knows what they’re doing,” Wechsler said.

“They have to be picked at the right ripeness in order to be flavorful.”

Similarly, more than half of the blueberry crop goes to fresh market and must be handpicked, said Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif.

“A lot of factors go into the tight labor situation,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Inc., Watsonville.

She cited an industry shift that is taking place in California.

An increase in the size of the raspberry crop in Southern California is keeping pickers in the southern part of the state longer rather than moving up to Santa Maria or the Watsonville-Salinas area to harvest strawberries, she said.

Also, with new, higher-yielding varieties, harvesting a field can take longer than in the past.

Despite an increasingly desperate situation, few grower-shippers expect politicians to take action anytime soon.

Resolving the issue requires leadership from the White House and a serious effort from a Congress that recognizes the importance of the issue and works together to solve it, Ostlund said.

“In an election year, it’s a lot to ask,” he said.

Wishnatzki doesn’t expect any significant action between now and November, but he said he hopes there will be serious debate after the election.

“(The labor shortage) could come to a critical point where whoever the administration is, they will have to do something to alleviate it,” he said.



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