Dec 3, 2019Labor crunch fuels automation, H-2A growth
Desperation for agricultural labor is transforming how growers pick and pack their fruit.
That’s the message Titan Farms’ Chalmers Carr III had for a group of growers who in August attended a Grand Rapids, Michigan, open house for fruit packing equipment company Van Doren Sales and its partner Compac Tomra.
“If we do not have labor, we’re not going to be in business,” he said. “More importantly, if we don’t keep moving forward we’re not going to be in business.”
Carr – a South Carolina peach grower who’s previously been profiled in Fruit Growers News – spoke about the benefits that came with a new packing line at his farm in South Carolina, which is focused on growing peaches. The new packing line and automatic sorter reduced its staff from 110 to 46 people and increased its rate from 2,400 boxes an hour to 3,500 boxes an hour. Labor costs are down from 60 cents to 22 cents per box.
Van Doren Sales manufactures automatic container and fruit-handling equipment. Previously located mostly in the Pacific Northwest, its other locations are Wenatchee and Yakima, Washington, and Kelowna, British Columbia. But its business in the East appears to be growing. Joe Clemens, operations manager for Compac, said the automatic sorter company has a significant presence in the East, which started “in a little corner of the Riveridge packing shed” before graduating to office space, events for apple growers and finally the new facility where attendees sat in Grand Rapids. Christopher Simard, vice president of North America sales at Compac, said the company has 25-30 staff in the East, including trainers, managers and engineers.
Although great strides are being made in automatic harvesting and sorting, Carr said that he didn’t see the machines taking over in his lifetime.
“We’re always going to need labor at some point,” he said.
Carr is also involved in the agriculture labor advocacy group USA Farmers, a founding member of the Ag Workforce Coalition, and he spoke at length about those efforts to influence agricultural labor reform.
From 2014-2018, Michigan has increased its workers certified through the H-2A agricultural work visa program by 540% – from just over 1,000 to more than 8,000, Carr said, citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“You have the fastest H-2A growth rate in the country.” He said the growth was fueled by “sheer desperation” as growers look for seasonal workers who are legally employable.
Many growers would like to see the H-2A program replaced or made less difficult, he said. Carr was upbeat concerning some of the players in Washington, D.C., including Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue who he said was working hard.
But Carr said significant labor reform beneficial to growers is unlikely in the next two years. Lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on agriculture labor reform in 2007, 2013 and 2018 when proposed legislation failed to attract enough votes.
In January 2019, Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats from California, introduced the Agricultural Worker Program Act. While the legislation was endorsed by the United Farm Workers Union, Carr said many national farmer groups experienced in the H-2A program were not invited to negotiations with Lofgren’s office as the professional immigration and labor attorney worked on the bill.
“I think we’re too far apart,” Carr said. “I just don’t think this is coming together.”
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor