Blueberry Farmers Struggle with Lack of Workers

September 8, 2016 12:40 PM

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

The program comes at a time when harvest is wrapping up for most growers and demand is needed. 

Mike DeGrandChamp, a blueberry farmer from South Haven, Mich. says warmer weather earlier in the growing season was a factor that quickly ripened the crop.

“This year, we are running behind because they’re ripening so quick,” said DeGrandChamp. “We’re putting in long hours and long days to keep up with the crop.”

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.”

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.

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. The invasive fruit fly came to the United States from Asia. SWD lays eggs inside the fruit, meaning it can’t be sold. DeGrandChamp says picking and marketing can be a struggle if you have it. 

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