Contact: Craig Anderson, 800-292-2680, ext. 2311
LANSING — Up and down the west coast of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, fruit and vegetable growers are girding themselves for a challenging harvest season. Vineyards, fields and orchards are heavily laden with many of Michigan's most distinctive crops, and more than anything growers just want to see it all picked in a timely fashion. Their one outstanding question for the coming weeks: will there be enough workers to bring in the better-than-average yields on everything from blueberry bushes to grape vines and apple trees?
Berrien — 'It's been tough'
"We're short," said a blunt Fred Leitz, who grows apples, berries and several different vegetables near Sodus in Berrien County. "We're probably about 10 percent short right now. We were as high as 50 percent a few weeks ago, but then people started trickling in."
Contributing to that trickle, Leitz explained, was the completion of detasseling work at nearby seed corn operations, and that the region's blueberry growers are doing more mechanical harvesting than usual—because there aren't enough workers to go around.
Recent cool weather slowed down the development of some crops, and thereby helped alleviate some of the labor issue. But the heat wave that preceded it put a spotlight on the worker shortage at Letiz's farm.
"When it was hot, we had everyone in vegetables just to keep up, so we had to let some blueberries go, we let the cukes go, and a lot of the apples didn't get thinned," he said. "We've only got 27 acres of blueberries, but they only got picked twice. We could've gone through them probably three more times."
Forty acres of cucumbers never got picked, Leitz said, and marketing options will be limited for undersized apples from orchards that weren't sufficiently thinned.
"It's been a tough one," he said, adding that normally he and his neighbors will help each other out—sharing workers during the height of the season to minimize the effect of minor, short-term labor shortages. "This year it's more like everybody's keeping everybody."
Asked to what extent the shortage is rooted in last year's fruit disaster, Leitz said, "Not much.
"I attribute it more to the border being tighter than they think."
Allegan — 'A little concerned'
Head north to where Allan Overhiser raises a diverse assortment of tree fruits, vegetables, field grains, beans and some poultry near South Haven in Allegan County.
"We're not bad," he said about his current supply of workers. "Pretty much everybody around here is a little short on labor, but I think we'll get by. I'm not concerned too much about the summer fruit, but we don't know how late the apples will go. I'm just a little concerned about how long they'll stick around."
Anticipating a shortage, Overhiser said some growers in the area simply planted fewer vegetables than they usually do.
"You can tell there just isn't the usual number of people around," he said. "It's pretty noticeable just driving around the countryside—looking at people's driveways and parking lots—there just isn't the number that're usually here."
Some of his usual workers were recruited to work in Washington state last year, and suspects it's likely they returned there this year. He usually needs a crew of 25 for a smooth, timely apple harvest; right now he has 15.
Ottawa — 'Gonna take a lot'
Roger Umlor raises apples—380 acres of apples—near Conklin in eastern Ottawa County, in an roly-poly region north and west of Grand Rapids aptly known as the Fruit Ridge.
"My camp manager just told me we're pretty close to full, so right now we're sitting pretty good," Umlor reported Thursday. "But we've got a huge crop of apples here on the Ridge. It's gonna take a lot of manpower."
Oceana — 'Just not around'
"I think we're gonna be a little short," said David Rabe, who raises apples, peaches and cherries near New Era in southern Oceana County. "I might be doing better than some, though. I've heard a lot of other guys saying they're gonna be really short.
"Normally by this time of year, I'm seeing a lot of people coming around, looking for work, but they're just not around this year. I think it's gonna be a tough harvest for everybody."
Manistee — 'Always nervous'
Two counties north, on a Manistee County fruit and vegetable operation near Kaleva, farm manager Mark Coe says he's good to go.
"We've got a full crew, but our situation is a little different than a lot of guys," he explained, and for one simple reason: no apples.
"When we have employees come in spring for asparagus, they go from that right to strawberries and squash and cherries and sweet corn and cucumbers," he said. "Right now we're harvesting pickles, we'll have broccoli soon in a couple days, sweet corn next week…"
His farm will be waiting on pumpkins when nearby apple orchards are peaking, so it's not uncommon for some of his workers to work on nearby farms in September and October.
One of those nearby farms is Smeltzer Orchards, near Bear Lake, where fourth-generation grower David Smeltzer said an adequate supply of qualified workers have been getting increasingly difficult to come by.
"I just spoke with my crew leader, and he assures me he'll have 18-20 people here to pick my apple crop," he said, although that may involve resorting to the notoriously slow and cumbersome H-2A worker visa program—currently the only federal program available to growers for enlisting foreign workers.
Smeltzer's operation maintains a positive reputation among workers that keeps them coming back—the result of maintaining good housing, solid ladders and quality tools. Multiple generations of one Florida-based family have been returning to Smeltzer's orchards since the 1970s.
"Maybe we've just been spoiled having the crew leader find us workers all these years," Smeltzer said, clearly doubting H-2A's ability to fill his crew in a timely fashion. With 125 acres of apples, he admits he's never 100 percent confident everything will fall into place.
"To be honest I'm always nervous about getting it all done," he said. "I can't just reach out and find 30 people."
Grand Traverse — ‘A little concerned’
Dean Johnson raises apples—Honeycrisp, Spy, Ida Red,
Cortland and Empire—on Old Mission Peninsula, just north of Traverse City.
“Right now I’m a little concerned for us,” Johnson said. “We’re
pretty far north up here and I’m concerned workers just aren’t going to make it
up this far.”
His right hand is a 30-year veteran who works for Johnson full-time,
year-round, and who maintains connections with workers across the country. Every
year it’s his responsibility to round up the full complement of 20 workers
Johnson needs to pick his 100 acres of apples.
“He’s telling me, ‘don’t worry—we’ll find people...’”