Michigan labor outlook gives grower-shippers reason to worry - The Packer

Michigan labor outlook gives grower-shippers reason to worry

06/09/2011 10:21:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

The labor outlook is a mixed bag for Michigan growers and marketers, as some worry about finding enough help to harvest their crops come late June and July.

“So far we’re only using people for transplants, but my foreman is nervous,” said Dave Miedema, president of E. Miedema & Sons, Byron Center, Mich. “We don’t have nearly the people coming by or asking for work as we have in past year.”

Miedema said he didn’t know the reason for the lack of interested workers, but increased border security with Mexico likely plays a role, he said.

“Several states in the southern growing regions are struggling to get enough labor as we move through the season,” said Larry Ensfield, vice president of marketing fro MBG Marketing, the Grand Junction, Mich.-based blueberry grower and marketer that is part of the Naturipe family.

Ensfield said he isn’t too worried about labor as the Michigan blueberry season comes on because the later harvest date should help.

“We haven’t had labor issues here, but I am hearing grumbling of labor issues out of Georgia,” said Talbert Nething, general manager of Hearty Fresh, Byron Center.

The labor issue is huge because growers can’t get local people to work, said Russell Costanza, owner of Russell Costanza Farms, Sodus, Mich.

Costanza cites government-funded unemployment benefits as a driver for unemployed Michigan residents to overlook farm work. For some, even if they make it out into the fields, they don’t want to work, Costanza said.

“It’s too easy to get on food stamps,” Costanza said. “The government entitlements are telling them not to work. And I can’t pay $15 to $20 an hour to people who won’t work.”

Costanza said he relies mostly on migrant labor, with most of his employees coming from Mexico for the seasonal jobs.

Both Costanza and Fred Leitz, principal in Leitz Farms LLC, also of Sodus, have traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak out for their position on immigration reform.

“Politically, immigration is still the biggest issue facing specialty crop ag,” Leitz said. “It is more so after the Supreme Court upheld the Arizona law. Agriculture doesn’t need to be tied up with comprehensive immigration reform. We need a program that works for ag. We are unique and have made the case for ag needing employees.”

Joe Pirrone, president of Mussey, Mich.-based Mike Pirrone Produce Inc., said labor hasn’t been an issue so far this year.

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