Labor problems continue

06/10/2014 04:01:00 PM
Andy Nelson

SODUS, Mich. — Labor problems in Michigan were bad for many grower-shippers last year, and this year could be a repeat.

Leitz Farms LLC is bracing for another year of labor-related headaches, said Fred Leitz, the company’s principal.

“We were short on labor last year, and we anticipate being a little short this year,” he said. “We left about 30% (unharvested) last year across the board. That’s costly.”

Rather than crops being dictated by markets or other economic conditions, it’s labor that’s calling the shots, Leitz said.

“It’s a crazy way for us to plan. A lot of people are calling this year asking if we’re going to have enough labor.”

With enough labor, Michigan asparagus acreage could jump 50% in the next five years, thanks to strong demand, said John Bakker, executive director of the DeWitt-based Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board.

“It’s frustrating,” Bakker said. “Demand is good, prices are good, but we have this dark labor cloud hanging over our heads, and it seems to be getting worse every year.”

Help could be coming, Bakker said, in the form of a statewide organization focused on finding labor for growers. Several meetings have been held already, and it could be up and running in time for the 2015 crop.

Coordinated with the help of the Michigan Farm Bureau, the organization would manage H-2A labor for growers of Michigan vegetables, blueberries, apples, Christmas trees and other agricultural products, Bakker said.

Harvest crews that were already in Michigan to pick one commodity could stay to pick another.

“It would bring folks up here and move them from crop to crop,” Bakker said.

North Carolina and other states have established similar organizations that have proven successful thus far, Bakker said.

Acreage is up for Byron Center, Mich.-based E. Miedema & Sons, but Dave Miedema, the company’s co-owner, is hesitant to bring all of it into production.

“We’re quite nervous about labor,” Miedema said. “We had a shortage last fall.”

Some late-season vegetable crops in Michigan in 2013 saw fierce competition from the state’s apple growers for labor, Miedema said.

Signs so far in 2014 are promising a repeat.

“Our foreman used to go home and have people waiting at his door, looking for work,” he said. “Now he’s begging people to work.”

Already by mid-May, growers in the Byron Center area had been scrambling to find workers to help with transplanting, Miedema said.

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