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Monday, 16 April 2012 14:38

Warm weather, labor shortage giving growers headaches

Written by  Rod Kackley
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WEST MICHIGAN — West Michigan asparagus and fruit growers are seeing the ugly side of the unusually warm, sunny weather that seemed to skip a season this year.

Temperatures topped 80 degrees in late March, followed by more normal weather with frost and freeze overnight as readings in the low 30s and even the upper 20s were reported along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Carlos Garcia-Salazar, Ph.D., the Michigan State University Extension Ottawa County Small Fruit Agent, wrote in the service’s March 27 bulletin that “unexpected challenges face the small fruit industry” in West Michigan because of the unusual weather, “especially blueberry and strawberry” growers.

However, that is only one problem the growers are facing. Even if their crops survive the weather, there may not be enough hands for harvesting operations.

Plant development is about a month ahead of normal in Southwest Michigan, according to MSU Extension Service agents in that area, and growing degree days are three times higher than average.

Asparagus is a spring crop in Michigan, grown primarily in Oceana County where more than 7,000 acres were planted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2010 Michigan Asparagus Inventory. Mason County was in second place with more than 1,000 acres of asparagus in the ground.

A couple weeks of summer-like weather in March pushed the asparagus plants above ground early. That was followed by overnight temperatures in the 30s in West Michigan and the 20s in Northwest Michigan, leading to worries about frost and freeze damage.

It isn’t unusual to have cold, overnight temperatures this time of the year. The big issue is the warm up in March that got everything growing about a month too early, experts say. All of this adds up to an extremely risky situation for fruit and asparagus growers. Frost and below-freezing temperatures would not be unusual through April and May. The potential for frost in West Michigan doesn’t end until Memorial Day.

“This is an extremely long risky time, more than we have had in my lifetime,” said Michigan Farm Bureau Commodity Specialist Ken Nye. “Most growers are pretty darn nervous.”

There isn’t much growers can do except wait, watch and worry, Nye said. Some have wind machines that could help keep frost off of trees and plants, Nye added. Farmers’ toolboxes of frost control measures are somewhat limited.

Fruit trees should have been planted in areas that are less likely to freeze than others, but that is all done ahead of time.

“There is darn little we can do once the event actually happens,” Nye told MiBiz. “In a year like this, it may be a futile attempt because we have so many nights ahead of us (with the possibility for damage). This could go on for six weeks.”

He believes that fruit growers in Central and Eastern Michigan could actually face the worst of the weather-related problems. Nye thinks there was probably some fruit damage because of the frost-freeze that followed the warm weather in March.

“They had pretty cold temps in Northwest Michigan, 26-27 degrees,” said Nye. “Nothing is blooming up there yet, but they could still be at a stage where they could be vulnerable in our prime cherry-producing area of the state. It is still early. We have a long way to go.”

As ominous as that sounds, Nye also said the biggest issue for the asparagus growers is not one of weather. It is the issue of labor. The migrant workers the farm operations depend on to harvest the vegetables are mostly still working in the southern states. They are not even close to Michigan, but because of the early start to the growing season, growers are being forced to begin harvesting in West Michigan weeks earlier than normal.

“They have a limited labor supply and are trying hard to find anyone local before workers arrive from the south,” said Nye. “I just don’t think they are going to be prepared from a labor (standpoint).”

Fruit growers are not facing the dire labor shortage that their counterparts in asparagus are dealing with, according to Nye. He said that as they get into the normal fruit season, they will start with a few strawberries, most of which tend to be locally picked.

Tart and sweet cherries should be next. The growers are hoping that by then, the message should get out to the migrant workforce and local workers that they need help early.

Read 1417 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 August 2012 09:47

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