US: Lack of workers troubles blueberry farmers

The blueberry harvest is wrapping up for most growers in Michigan. Warm weather earlier in the season meant the crop ripened quickly, hence growers have struggled to keep up with the harvest and the lack of workers has made the situation all the more difficult. 

Mike DeGrandChamp, a blueberry farmer from South Haven, Mich. says 
“This year, we are running behind because they’re ripening so quick,” 

While the blueberry crop in both ’14 and ’15 were a little light, the ’16 season is looking to be a good, large crop.

“They set a lot of fruit buds in the fall for this year,” said DeGrandChamp. “Mild winters didn’t have the damage in the winter. We came through spring with little frost at all. It’s a big crop. Probably the biggest Michigan has ever had.”

But DeGrandChamp is facing a problem. He doesn’t have the labor he needs to pick the blueberries. He says this is the “least amount of labor we’ve had in years.”

“We’re not seeing the return of those hispanic migrants that are picking for us,” said DeGrandChamp.

As a result, harvesters are running earlier than normal.

“We’re running 10 percent lower than we normally have for a hand-picking crew, and this year, we could use double from what we normally have,” said DeGrandChamp. “If we had more labor to pick and if it wasn’t such a huge crop, I wouldn’t be picking this a second time. I would hand pick this and it would go into the fresh market.”

He doesn’t use the H-2A program, the federal program used for seasonal crops, saying it isn’t a “workable” program.

“Local people don’t want to do these jobs anymore, and the H-2A is very cumbersome,” said DeGrandChamp.

Despite labor woes faced around the country, he is balancing demand with his retail store and packing facility. DeGrandChamp says this keeps the balance, and the location helps as well.

Blueberry growers and importers have also voted to continue their Blueberry Promotion, Research and Information Order program, which would strengthen new and existing markets and research.

As another season comes to an end, growers like DeGrandChamp can be proud of the triumphs of a large crop, but will continue to battle lack of workforce.

DeGrandChamp says spotted wing drosophila fruit fly (SWD) is also a concern to growers. DeGrandChamp says picking and marketing can be a struggle if you have it. 


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