Not only did a devastating spring weather pattern wreak havoc for the state’s argibusinesses — especially those tied to tree fruit crops — but now a shortage of farm labor threatens to further strain their operations.
In a year that saw an estimated 95-percent crop loss in tart cherries and similarly high loss numbers in peaches and apples, Michigan tree fruit farmers are reeling from the blow. Still, farmers that were not hit so hard by the early thaw and freeze-out are being touched in other ways, notably in the lack of farm labor.
Alan Overhiser, fifth generation operator of Overhiser Orchards and supervisor for Casco Township, has seen firsthand the ripple effects of the crop devastation and the shortage of labor.
“As I talk to blueberry growers and vegetable growers, the people who needed some help, everyone has been short of labor this year. I haven’t talked to anybody that had a surplus of labor this year,” said Overhiser. “In my case, I don’t need any because we froze out, so I guess that’s the good thing this year.”
Overhiser operates a farm of 225 acres of mixed tree fruit including peaches and apples, and he rents out the rest of the land for other farmers to use. Typically, Overhiser hires up to 15 seasonal workers beginning in the spring. The number of workers grows to 25 or 30 pickers during apple season. But right now, he only has two workers, and he said he isn’t likely to take on anybody else.
“We’re just wanting to get this year in the rear-view mirror,” Overhiser said. “We won’t hire any people until … next May.”
While Overhiser’s lost crop may leave him immune to the problem of finding farm labor this harvest season, many of his peers are having difficulty getting enough workers to ensure that their crops don’t rot on the tree.
“I talked to a grower in Traverse City the other day who does have about 70 percent of an apple crop, and he’s terribly concerned that he’s just not going to get pickers,” said Overhiser. “It’s hard in Traverse City to get pickers because they typically don’t employ a lot of labor. At least around here we’ve got a lot of vegetables and blueberries and other crops that they come in for. But if they’re specifically going to Traverse City to pick apples or something, that’s just a long way to go for one crop.”
As Overhiser sees it, this shortage is not caused by any one factor that can be easily remedied. Rising fuel costs mean it’s harder to convince laborers to travel the long distance between growing areas. An artificially created overlap in harvest seasons and non-uniform immigration laws also play a part.
While Michigan currently doesn’t have any E-Verify legislation on the books, farmers have mounting concerns that such a law could make it even more difficult for farmers to find skilled laborers, he said. E-Verify offers employers an Internet-based system to verify an employee’s employment eligibility with federal data.
“Michigan had threatened the E-Verify law last year — that may have had some impact on people worrying about being harassed here in Michigan,” Overhiser said. “I know that other states that have the E-Verify law just have a real hard time getting workers to come into the state.”
Even without immigration issues in play, news of the tree fruit devastation spread quickly through the migrant labor grapevine, causing many workers to think twice about coming north this fall, he said.
Another unforeseen side effect of the drought-like conditions from earlier in the summer is that it caused an early season for blueberries and other fruits and vegetables. According to Overhiser, the early season may have overlapped with other crop seasons in southern regions, where laborers were still working.
“Crops were advanced because of the heat and the drought,” he said, noting that migrant laborers’ work in the Carolinas perhaps hadn’t wrapped up by the time they were needed here in Michigan. “I think if somebody is going to come from a southern state, they’re going to probably want a pretty good economic proposition whereby they could pick one crop, then another crop, then maybe another crop. There’s just a lot of costs to get here.”
With crops ripening before laborers can finish up in the south, farmers in Michigan were left to fend for themselves.
“Early on, the asparagus growers — because that crop started out so early — were having a tremendous trouble getting labor to pick it,” said Overhiser.
According to Overhiser, the key to a successful harvest is getting enough laborers who are able to work quickly and efficiently, and keeping them through the duration of the harvesting season. One strategy Overhiser employs is planting a wide variety of crops that ripen at various times so laborers will have a consistent supply of work. Other best practices in ensuring a consistent pool of farm laborers include providing housing and hiring whole families instead of individuals, a strategy Overhiser employs.
“The thing you try to do is cultivate a good pool of labor. In my case, I usually hire probably more laborers than I need just so I have a good pool to draw from,” said Overhiser. “We try to employ whole families.”
Overhiser said farm laborers have to be multi-talented to work effectively. The notion that they are unskilled workers is a misconception, he said. The ability to work efficiently and in difficult and often harsh conditions is a skill that most people don’t possess, Overhiser said.
When a limited labor pool and difficult weather conditions combine to form a “perfect storm” as it did this year, farmers can struggle to find the help they need to get crops picked.
“I think one thing people don’t understand is that people we normally hire are skilled at this work. It’s just not something that everyone can do. I think that’s probably the myth out there. The reality is that we’re in the business of providing safe, high-quality food that people want to buy. It takes a skilled labor force. It’s hard work. They just aren’t everywhere,” Overhiser said.
With the combined forces of crop devastation and labor shortage weighing on Michigan’s farmers, Overhiser will be glad when this year is over.
“It’s complicated and it’s compounded by all the different events that are happening: the drought, the freeze, the immigration, you name it,” said Overhiser. ”We’re just wanting to get this year in the rear-view mirror.”