( The Packer staff )

DENVER — U.S. growers have dealt with labor problems for years.

The labor market is tightening with the improving economy, and the produce industry has an uneasy relationship with immigrant labor, as much of it has been undocumented for a long time.

Growers have found little help from Congress, as leaders from both parties seem more interested in using illegal immigration as a political wedge than in addressing the country’s labor problems, especially for agriculture.

Yet — generally — most growers still find a way to grow and ship their fruits and vegetables because they’ve found a way to profitably harvest crops despite the labor challenges.

One group has found the labor problem to be so large, it’s calling quits on a successful program.

Rest in peace, Spud Nation.

At the Potatoes USA annual meeting March 12-15 in Denver, CEO Blair Richardson said finding workers for its successful food truck program has proved too difficult.

“I can’t hire people,” he told attendees.

Potatoes USA will wind down its food truck program this year despite the program meeting 98% of its metrics, Richardson said.

The program wasn’t designed as a big money maker, but more of a promotional outreach, he said. 

But I can say its potato dishes are fantastic, as I had some pulled pork potato skins from the truck outside a local Denver brewery during the meeting.

“The labor market is so tough in Denver,” Richardson said, as the unemployment rate in the city is about 2% right now. 

“It’s a business, but it’s also a marketing campaign, and we have to have people who represent our message.”
He said recently, applicants have asked for as much as $16-20 an hour, plus tips, and that is a level the board just can’t justify.

The board had hoped to send the trucks to 60-70 events per month, but it’s only able to do about 20 right now. He’s hopeful Potatoes USA can keep it going by transitioning it to an owner-operator system or even licensing it around the country.

Hopefully Spud Nation can live on, not just in our memories.

Greg Johnson is The Packer’s editor. E-mail him at [email protected].