Labor pains Michigan growers

06/14/2013 02:54:00 PM
David Mitchell

A combination of adverse weather and a tight labor pool may have cost Michigan growers more than 10% of the state’s asparagus crop.

“We lost quite a bit due to frost on Mother’s Day weekend,” said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, DeWitt.

“When things did start growing, it came on fast. We’re so light on labor, we lost some asparagus.”

Labor figures to be a factor for many Michigan growers, regardless of commodity, this summer.

Steve Spiech, president of Spiech Farms LLC, Lawton, Mich., said growers have to be more efficient, and that may mean relying more on modern technology and equipment and less on manual labor.

Less than 5% of Michigan blueberries are machine harvested, but that might have to change if the state’s labor supply doesn’t improve.

Spiech said mechanical harvesting costs his company about 20 cents a pound, while hand picking costs about 70 cents a pound. The machine, which vibrates berries off the plants, is also much faster.

“There’s no comparison, but it doesn’t always work,” Spiech said. “It can bruise the berries. You have to do it just right.”

Spiech, who has been working on mechanical harvesting for a decade, said harvesters cost about $160,000, and the technology is changing so quickly that the equipment is out of date within just a few years.

Hot, humid weather and rain also can make blueberries more likely to be damaged during mechanical harvesting, compared to hand picking, said Brian Bocock, Grand Junction, Mich.-based vice president of product management for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla.

“It’s a difficult thing to do,” Bocock said of machine harvesting.

“Everything has to be working in your favor with the weather.”

So why all this talk of machinery when good old-fashioned picking is better for the fruit?

“Labor continues to be a topic in all our areas,” Bocock said. “The amount of labor that’s here will dictate how much goes to fresh versus processing.”

The labor shortage isn’t just a blueberry issue. Vegetable grower E. Miedema & Sons, Byron Center, Mich., built new housing for its migrant workers this winter.

“Labor is a big concern to us,” said president Dave Miedema.

“We’ve always had housing, but some of our houses were getting old and run down. We built a new apartment building.”

Michigan is expecting a large apple crop, and Miedema knows that means more competition for workers.


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