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.

Miedema has heard reports of INS officers “picking up people on the streets” and deporting them.

“What we hear is that this administration is much more likely to send people back.”

“We used to have a whole list of names of people who wanted to work,” he said. “This year it’s real scary.”

Putting a workable legal solution into place to help guarantee a stable work force shouldn’t be rocket science, said Todd Miedema, marketing director and a principal of Hudsonville-based Miedema Produce Inc.

“We need to control the borders, but If you can track a box of produce, you should be able to do the same with immigrants,” Miedema said. “I squarely put the blame on politicians.”

Guest workers, Miedema said, should be issued a card similar to a driver’s license. The administrative costs of any program would be paid for by the workers. It would be a lot cheaper, he said, to pay a fee than to pay a “coyote” to deliver you across the border illegally.

“To me, it’s not that difficult,” he said. “Taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay for it.”

That said, Miedema is not optimistic about a legislative breakthrough.

As a result, growers have to take matters into their own hands.

“In years past, they’d just hope they showed up,” he said. “Now, the growers I know are getting out in front and lining up labor beforehand. They’re being a lot more proactive.”

Miedema Produce is lucky because its signature crop, radishes, is more mechanized than other crops and thus doesn’t rely as much on labor.

In general, the company benefits from a loyal workforce.

“We have a lot of longtime, trusted employees who we see every year.”

In a typical year, reports of labor shortages may vary from grower to grower, but in 2013, the story was the same pretty much everywhere, said Todd DeWaard, sales manager of Hudsonville-based Superior Sales.

“It affected everybody,” he said. “Labor dictated what got picked. That made a lot of growers cautious about what to put in the ground this year.”

Given the strong markets last year, you’d expect production to be up this year, DeWaard said. Instead, they’re more likely to hold the line due to labor fears.

And growers won’t be taking as many risks.

“People are cutting the fat,” he said. “Whatever was on the back burner, they’re realizing it’s not worth it.”

Michigan vegetable growers will likely feel the heat this season more than the state’s blueberry growers, DeWaard said.

“Blueberry shippers seem to be able to offer a little bit more, as far as wages go,” he said.

Jordan Vande Guchte, a Superior salesman, said many growers and shippers in Michigan have accepted the fact that they can only rely on themselves when it comes to labor.

“I don’t place a lot of priority in hoping Congress will do something,” he said. “We’re just playing the cards we’re dealt.”

Labor is not as much of a concern for Paw Paw-based Spiech Farms LLC, said Steve Spiech, the company’s president.

One key for Spiech Farms is that is uses the same workforce in Florida, Georgia and Michigan for its blueberry harvest, Spiech said.

Once the Florida harvest is done, half of the crew goes to Georgia, half to Michigan. The crews are very similar from one year to the next.

“We employ from March to November,” he said. “We haven’t had a lot of trouble finding workers.”

Another grower-shipper that wasn’t having as many labor headaches as others was Hart-based Todd Greiner Farms, said Todd Greiner, chief executive officer.

The company, he said, has no concerns it will have to mow over any of its asparagus plantings this year.

“Most of our workers are returning from years past,” Greiner said. “We have adequate labor. The industry, in general, though, needs to get something worked out.”

Greiner said the proposed labor group managed by the farm bureau could be one possible solution.

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