Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor
Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor

As lawmakers stall in reforming immigration laws, growers are dealing with new challenges in trying to assure adequate volume of workers.

It’s not only more difficult for growers to secure enough workers to harvest their crops, they’re now competing even more against other commodities.

Growers are also working harder to forecast their supply of workers.

Florida’s blueberry deal, which has seen increasing demand and production in the past decade, is encroaching on spring tomato and vegetable harvesting on Florida’s west coast.

Workers who once harvested the Palmetto-Ruskin area tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers are moving to the less strenuous blueberries.

Because blueberries typically start 10 days before the vegetables, that’s causing labor shortages on the front end of vegetable harvesting and those workers don’t normally return to vegetables until later in the deal, said Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, Fla.

“I see the labor pool continuing to shrink going forward,” DiMare said.

“You really don’t have any certainty on what you will have for labor until you get to the day of harvesting. What any of us intend to plant will be predicated on the assurance or availability of labor. That will dictate what acreage is planted in any commodity. The shortage of labor is going to continue to grow.”

Strawberry growers, who finish harvesting about a month into the blueberry season, also report losing growers to blueberries.

Though labor is tight there as well, Florida’s northern neighbors aren’t seeing any dramatic shifts from one crop to another, said Charles Hall, executive director of the La Grange-based Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association.

If growers didn’t start planning on how many workers they could expect to harvest their crops before a tough new state labor law took effect in 2011, the law has prompted them to spend more time on it, Hall said.

“They’re having to make sure they plan for how much labor they have,” he said.

“The shortages will be more farm to farm than an overall shortage.”

Smaller labor force

Fearing enforcement of the law and unable to find jobs in the construction field where many worked, numerous workers returned to Mexico, dwindling the local harvesting workforce, said Dick Minor, partner with Minor Produce Inc. and Minor Bros. Farm in Leslie, Ga.

Minor Bros., which grows and ships cucumbers, squash, green beans and watermelon, saw a big hit in the number of locals who traditionally worked the fields and packinghouses, he said.

Minor said he wasn’t sure of the percentage, but said growers this spring experienced worker shortages.

That caused growers during the latter part of the deal to stop picking crops based on market values, becoming more selective and moving to higher quality fruit, he said.

Minor agrees the shortages are requiring growers to become better forecasters.

“This fall, the first thing we will have to think about is how much labor we will have,” Minor said.

“Not only how much labor you will have, but how dependable it will be and will have to consider the possibility it could be delayed in arriving.”

Growers of all crops are being more cautious and aren’t planting as many acres as they did when they had more abundant labor.

And the threat of fewer workers could harm acreage.

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