Lack of labor concerns Michigan asparagus growers

06/14/2007 02:00:00 AM

By Andy Nelson
The Packer


The first half of May was filled with cruel irony for many Michigan asparagus grower-shippers.

The weather was perfect, the grass looked great … and there was no one to pick it.

“If you look at the total industry, we’re right on the ragged edge,” John Bakker, the executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board in DeWitt, says. “To date, the majority of growers have got off, but about 25 percent are in horrible shape.”

Several growers were forced to mow asparagus because there was no one to pick it, Bakker said. Many crews that showed up were half as large — or maybe even as low as a third as large — as
growers had hoped, he said. Asparagus fields are harvested several times per season, so growers hoped for better luck with subsequent crops.

The labor shortage this year is very similar to the situation growers found themselves in last year, Bakker says — with one critical difference: Mother Nature gave overburdened picking crews a helping hand.

“Last year, we were very, very tight, but the thing that saved us was very favorable growing conditions,” he says. “The cold  would come, and it would allow the help to catch up.”

Bakker says this year’s labor crunch came as a surprise, given the devastating weather-related losses to crops in the Southeast.

“In April, we were thinking that because so many crops down south were hurt by frost, there would be less help needed there,” he says.

Bakker says adequate moisture in the fall and winter and good growing weather had produced a high-quality 2007 crop. “The crop looks fantastic,” he says. “We had pretty good snow pack
and good rains. The soil is in good shape.”

Todd Greiner, owner of Todd Greiner Farms, Hart, agrees.

“This year, the crop started out with fantastic quality,” he says. “The only thing of concern is the labor. I don’t think it’s going to get better until the government steps in and realizes they need to start taking care of our country.”

Markets should be strong for Michigan asparagus, Bakker says, assuming growers can get it out of the ground. Harvest should wrap up in the third or fourth week in June, with growers
packing through the end of the month, he predicted.

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