Food Service & Agriculture and Human Resources

Labor woes the pits for peach farmers

October 3, 2014
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Harvesting peaches is a labor-intensive activity, which is making it difficult for some farmers to find help. Courtesy

LANSING — (As seen on WZZM TV 13) A shortage of labor is forcing farmers to face tough decisions about next year’s peach crops.

Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said some peach and asparagus farmers are resorting to ripping their crops out of the fields to replace them with crops that are easier to harvest — like cherries, which can be gathered by machine.

“We’re seeing the number of peach trees go down because there just isn’t enough labor,” Clover Adams said.

Arthur Lister of Lister Orchards in Ludington grows clingstone peaches, the variety used for processing. He has had a typical experience with his peaches this year: no labor to help harvest.

“We have enough market uncertainty, like any business,” Lister said. “But we also have weather uncertainty, and adding labor uncertainty is a real problem. We will have to adapt to changes.”

Peaches, along with asparagus, is one of the hardest crops to harvest, Lister said, and consequently one of the hardest for which to find labor. To compensate, Lister said he plans to remove 20 percent of his peach trees this year and a portion of his apple trees, despite an extremely successful year for apples, according to Diane Smith, director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

There is solid demand for peaches and an increase in demand for asparagus, but the crops have not seen an increase in production. Asparagus crops are harvested in the early spring, one of the first crops of the season to be harvested, while peaches are harvested in the early fall. Both are times when younger workers are in school.

“The traditional migratory stream that has harvested much of Michigan’s produce is changing,” said Craig Anderson, manager of Agricultural Labor and Safety Services at the Michigan Farm Bureau, due to an aging workforce and school conflicts.

Enacted in 1986, the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Employment of Foreign Workers program provides a visa that allows foreign workers to do seasonal farm work when domestic labor is less available. This program has the potential to fill the labor gaps in seasonal agricultural work in Michigan. Other states, like Washington, have been using the program longer than Michigan due to a more pressing need for labor.

In Michigan, between 20 and 30 farm operations have or have had an H-2A contract within the past couple of years, Anderson said. Between 300 and 800 employees are covered by these contracts.

The program is expensive for the employer, Anderson said, and the complexities of the program could discourage some from applying. Applicants submit a contract 75 to 90 days before harvesting begins and estimate the amount of work, with details about the crops, when they’ll be ready, the amount of time harvesting would take, the domestic labor already available and the number of foreign workers.

However, as the only foreign worker program for seasonal workers in the U.S., H-2A is successful in protecting both domestic and foreign workers, according to Anderson. By mandating a wage of at least $11.65 an hour — higher than Michigan’s new minimum wage of $8.15 an hour — workers are protected.

Though Michigan farmers are starting to participate in the program, the Ludington area has yet to reach out. Lister said he wanted to wait out the tumultuous economic climate, and plans to decide on next year’s crop after the election.

Melvin Christofferson of Christofferson Farms in Ludington has seen a softer side to the recent decline in labor. Not only has he worked with the same staff for 20 years, his is one of a few farms and orchards in the area that produces freestone peaches, the variety meant for eating. Despite success selling peaches on his farm and at a farmers market in Midland once a week, Christofferson is well aware of the struggles peach farmers are facing.

“Peaches are very labor-intensive, so it’s easier for people to harvest other crops, like cherries or blueberries,” he said.

Three times a year, intensive labor is needed for peaches: during pruning, thinning by hand and picking by hand. Due to competition for other crops in the area, especially blueberries and zucchini, Lister said, “the labor shortage is tremendous.”

Lister said he is considering replanting crops that he has removed, but has not made a final decision.

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