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.

“We have a lot of people from last year who have come back, and we seem to be OK,” Pirrone said.

Pirrone said he’s more worried about the cost of fertilizer and fuel.

Todd Miedema, marketing director and principal in Miedema Produce Inc., Hudsonville, Mich., said labor has not been an issue for his operation, either.

“It’s one of those things that always requires your attention, but it has not been an issue,” Todd Miedema said. “We have adequate labor.”

“We have to compete with the Mexican product coming in, we’ve got Canadian product coming in, and both of those countries have guest worker programs,” Costanza said.

Bruce Heeren, vice president of Michigan Fresh Marketing, Belding, said he didn’t expect labor to be a problem this season.

“There seems to be an abundance of workers available again this season due to the lackluster economy, i.e. field workers that may have worked in construction or lawn and landscaping services when the economy was good,” Heeren said.

Even for those less worried about the labor market, there are still issues with complying with laws and regulations that affect how migrant labor housing and employment verification work.

“The only issue we have had with our seasonal help here at Superior is finding apartments to house them as the decline in the housing marketing is leading to a spike/waiting list on the apartment side of things locally,” said Todd DeWaard, sales manager of Hudsonville-based Superior Sales.

Costanza said there have also been issues with regulations being sprung on growers at the last minute, including a recent requirement that laundry facilities be present in worker housing.



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