Mar 22, 2013
Labor shortages force growers to get creative

Back in the 1990s, cherry growers in the Hood River area of Oregon could see a labor shortage looming.

“Here in the Pacific Northwest, of course, we use mostly Mexican laborers, and there have been, over the last decade or so, other opportunities for many of them,” said Lynn Long, a horticulture educator with Oregon State University Extension. “So they’ve moved into construction, into some manufacturing jobs and some other industries.

“In addition, with the border issues, it’s harder for them to come across the border, so the labor force is drying up for a number of different reasons,” Long said. “This has been a major concern for our growers for some time. At least since 2000, we started seeing some labor shortages.”

In Oregon, they responded by looking at ways to reduce the amount of labor needed. Enter pedestrian orchards, or those with trees that aren’t as tall. That means shorter ladders or no ladders at all. Not only are they safer, pedestrian orchards enable workers to pick more fruit faster. Individually, they earn more money, and collectively the workers’ numbers don’t have to be as great.

“Labor cost-wise, it’s been similar to a little bit less as far as pruning,” said Tim Dahle at Dahle Orchards in The Dalles, Ore. “Our productivity per picker is at least 30 percent better, but probably 40 percent better.

“And we tend to get light penetration throughout the tree, so we tend to get a more uniform level of maturity with fruit that way also.”

It was this model that recently attracted the attention of growers in Michigan. Anticipating a labor shortage after last year’s disastrous cherry crop sent regular seasonal workers to jobs elsewhere, growers there are looking for creative ways to attract traditional labor, as well as find new sources of workers.

Growers in northwest Michigan recently held a meeting, where the focus was mostly on labor issues.

“Is there a way we can start thinking differently, in terms of how we do things in terms of harvesting crops, than we have in the past?” asked Nikki Rothwell, a Michigan State University Extension horticultural educator. “I think as an industry, as a little teeny corner of the world, that we’re going to have to start thinking differently.”

Some growers in the region are doing that.

Jerry Stanek, who runs a vineyard in Leelanau County and also is a high school ski racing coach, has gone to recruiting workers from his team.

“It’s something I’ve done, and have used kids not only when we were in the cherry and apple business, but in this last season as laborers in the vineyard,” said Stanek, who said he needs between 12 and 25 workers on his farm, depending on the time of year. “I went from being called ‘coach’ to being called ‘boss.’”

On the plus side, he said, athletes tend to have a good work ethic. They also take interest and pride in the grape-growing process – and like earning money.

“I think I pay pretty well,” he said. “When they get that first paycheck, all of a sudden they understand they can make some money for the summer.”

When school resumed, some returned to work weekends during the grape harvest.

“They asked me if they could,” he said. “They’d done all that work, but they didn’t know what it was to harvest.
“They experienced the whole cycle of growing grapes. It was good for me and it was a great experience for the kids, too.”

Nita Send, who with husband Jeff farms nearly 1,000 acres of orchards in Leelanau County, said they have hired high school and college students for the receiving station and the orchard, though not for picking apples or cherries yet. She recruits through the local high school and through word of mouth.

Some of the teens the Sends hire have never even operated a lawn mower.

“Young people, and probably even their parents, no longer know how a farm works,” Send said. “Back when I was in high school, we had a few kids that drove tractors to school.”

But with the proper work ethic, and the Sends’ willingness to train them and work around the realities of teen life like driver’s ed and sports camps, it can work.

“We have a training day, which we pay them for,” Send said. “Half of it is paperwork and half of it is hands on. I do a Farm Psychology 101 and explain the stress, that our paycheck for the year depends on getting this crop in.”

Some of the kids stay on and work summers right through college.

“We’ve had a lot of them afterwards come back and tell us … they appreciated the job,” she said. “One thing it teaches them is to stay in school, so they don’t have to work like this their whole life.”

Mark Miezio at nearby Cherry Bay Orchards employs retirees, or as he prefers to describe them, “experienced labor force.”

“There’s a good selection of people who have grown up farming, they’re retired and still want to have a hand in it,” Miezio said. “And we’ve also gotten a lot of school bus drivers.”

These older workers operate forklifts and drive and shuttle full tanks to the receiving station.

“That seems to be a very good fit for people,” Miezio said. “We’ve been able to really make some things work.”

Nikki Rothwell said she was also part of a NEW FARM (Farmer Assistance and Resource Management) group that recently paid a visit to New Zealand, where they learned about a practice that has backpackers working their way through the country by stopping and staying at farms and helping with the harvest.

“We are located in a significant fruit-growing area, which attracts passing backpackers looking for work, as they know there are seasonal jobs in the orchards,” said Caroline Peckham, via email, at Peckham’s Cider near Nelson, at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. “It also helps that the area is a significant tourist attraction, so the backpackers want to be here anyway and can explore the area at weekends when not working.”

The backpacking workers stay six to eight weeks, then move on to another area of the country. The farms can provide some accommodations, but the backpackers often come by van and sleep there, using the farm’s facilities.

“We like employing backpackers because they are usually enthusiastic, interested in learning different jobs and learning about how life in New Zealand works,” Peckham said. “It is fun for us to experience different cultures, and they are also fit and strong from carrying their packs.”

These and other possibilities are worth exploring, Rothwell said, as immigration issues and other factors complicate growers’ abilities to secure enough labor to harvest their crops.

“It’s hard to find labor,” she said, “and it’s going to be hard to retain labor.”

Kathy Gibbons

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