Ask a mid-Atlantic grower, big or small, what their biggest challenge is this year, and the answers rarely vary.
Weather, fuel and labor.
Bob Colson, president of Cheriton, Va.-based C&E Farms, which packs up to 700,000 bushels at its Virginia facility, cites the rising costs of growing and packing a bushel of green beans as his biggest concern this year.
Calvert Cullen agrees.
“Fuel’s pretty bad, we’re paying $4.15 to $4.25 gallon for diesel,” said Cullen, president of Cheriton -based Northampton Growers Produce Sales Inc. on the eastern shore.
“Everyone in the produce industry is affected,” he said, “whether it’s fuel in our tractors or the products used to make boxes for our produce … it goes right down the line.”
Cullen said his other big challenge is finding enough labor to pick Northampton’s shopping list of vegetables, grown in Virginia and North Carolina and sold all over North America.
Curt Fifer, director of sales for Fifer Orchards, a 2,000-acre family fruit and vegetable farm in Wyoming, Del., said it’s getting more difficult to find workers willing to work hard.
“You have to pay more money and it just inflates everything,” said Fifer, who sources Mexican and Hispanic labor, with local school kids during the summer.
Henry Chiles, president of Batesville, Va.-based Crown Orchard Co., said workers usually come looking for work in his peach and apple orchards, and his supervisors know many people, but it’s getting tougher to recruit people.
“The labor pool isn’t as big now as it was 10 years ago,” Chiles said, “and we’re struggling this year to get enough workers.”
Delaware secretary of agriculture Ed Kee said his state’s growers “made out OK” last year, but he agreed the region’s fresh fruit and vegetable industry needs more legal immigrant labor, whether it comes from the U.S., Mexico or Central America.