( File photo )

Michigan produce growers said rain and cool weather have delayed crop progress through May, but that was all subject to change in the weeks ahead.

Last year was a dry year for the region, then Mother Nature switched it up for 2019, said Nick Huizinga, general manager of Hearty Fresh Inc., Byron Center, Mich.

“We’ll wait and see how things go along,” he said. “Midwest weather can fluctuate quite a bit and if we get some warming trends we can bounce right back to where we have a normal start date.”

Acreage is similar to last year, he said.

While cucumbers typically start a little after July 4, he said it is too early to say if this year’s crop will be later than that.

The firm markets Michigan cucumbers, yellow squash, hard squash, zucchini squash, cabbage, celery, green peppers and onions. Onions typically start about mid-August, he said.

"If we get some drier weather, when we get some warmer weather, I think a lot of those crops tend to make up whatever they’re behind."

“It is really yields that will (determine) what supply does, and there is a lot of question marks out there,” Huizinga said, noting temperatures through late May had not topped 80 degrees.

Todd Miedema, director of marketing for Hudsonville, Mich.-based Miedema Produce, said the radish deal, typically starting June 1, was running about two weeks late with the cool weather. 

The company is a large shipper of radishes, parsnips, leafy greens, turnips, carrots, mixed vegetables, beets and rutabagas and onions. The company will ship radishes into early November.

“If we get some drier weather, when we get some warmer weather, I think a lot of those crops tend to make up whatever they’re behind,” he said.

Detroit-based Riggio Distribution Co. carries 50-100 Michigan produce items, said Dominic Riggio, president of the company. The firm distributes to retail and foodservice customers throughout the Midwest. 

The company is especially strong in the variety pepper category, in addition to blueberries, peaches, sweet corn, greens and other items.

Speaking June 3, Riggio said some local deals in Michigan were running two to three weeks behind because of rainy and cool weather in May and April.

“Our target is 750 acres (of sweet corn) but I doubt we hit that."

Riggio said he hopes the delayed start translates to a longer season at the end.

“We are hoping for an extended summer,” he said.

2018 was a tough year for Michigan sweet corn growers, with a heat wave hitting during pollination and hot and dry conditions continuing to take their toll during the growing season, said Steve Haaksma, sales manager for Byron Center, Mich.-based E. Miedema & Sons.

This year, rain has pushed sweet corn planting off schedule.

“Our target is 750 acres (of sweet corn) but I doubt we hit that,” Haaksma said. 

About half of that total was planted as of late May. July 15-18 is the typical start date for the company’s sweet corn, but this year first shipments may not start until August. Shipments of sweet corn are expected to continue to mid-October.

Last year the firm experimented with organic sweet corn but none made it to market, he said.

“We will plant some organic sweet corn and try it again,” Haaksma said. “Last year was a learning experience.”

The firm marketed organic cabbage and hard squash last year and will have those items again this year, he said.

The firm expects to harvest about 1,600 acres this year. It cut out zucchini and yellow squash because those crops are labor intensive.

“(Those commodities) are either a ‘go big or don’t go at all,’ and we can’t afford to go big with it, so we just dropped it,” he said.

Cabbage will start about the last week of June and could run to the first week of December and perhaps longer.

Hard squash will start in mid- to late August and also run into early December.

Haaksma said E. Miedema & Sons has bumped up its wages in the past two years to secure adequate farm labor.

Fred Leitz Jr., partner in Sodus, Mich.-based Leitz Farms, said it markets about 310 acres of grape tomatoes, round tomatoes and roma tomatoes, in addition to cucumbers, blueberries and apples. Acreage is steady from a year ago.

Leitz said the firm typically markets grape tomatoes by July 20, but the start date could be pushed back by about 10 days. Harvest will continue through mid-October.

Cucumbers typically start in early July and could be pushed back slightly, he said.

“It costs me $5.26 per package just for labor for everything I produce on the farm.”

This year will be the fifth year that Leitz Farms has used the H-2A agricultural guest worker program. While it provide more certain labor supply, costs are high, equivalent to about $16.22 per hour, considering via fees, transportation expenses and housing. That can make competing with Mexican produce difficult.

“It costs me $5.26 per package just for labor for everything I produce on the farm,” he said. 

In contrast, he said Mexico’s labor costs are less than 40 cents per package and Canada’s labor costs are $4.41 per package.

“We’re really feeling the pinch because of labor — it’s all about labor,” he said.

While local demand helps Michigan, lower costs for Mexican produce can hurt demand.

Earlier this year, Leitz gave testimony to government officials about the need for greater protection for domestic growers against imports.

“Part of our marketing is the local demand, the summertime demand, but we’re always priced off of what they’re bringing in from Mexico,” he said. 

“They’re not going to pay me a whole bunch more if they can buy it from Mexico cheaper.”

The influence of Mexican tomatoes in the summer has increased with greater distribution through Texas, he said.

“When they came up through Nogales, they didn’t bother us in the East too much in the summer,” he said. 

“But now that they are able to come up to Texas, they built the infrastructure to come up to Brownsville and up through Texas and hit Florida and the Eastern seaboard.

 
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