Fighting back against limited labor for berry harvests

Whatever the berry, the labor shortage is consistently cited as a major impediment.

“Labor always ranks up there as a one of the big issues for growers,” said Kevin Schooley, executive director of the North American Strawberry Growers Association in Welland, ON. “People have been working to try to improve the H-2A Visa program to make it less burdensome and reduce the paperwork.”

Gary Wishnatzki, co-founder of Harvest CROO Robotics and owner of Wish Farms, who grows in both Florida and California, has even harsher words: “It’s a terrible program,” he said, adding that growers are often forced to hire an administrator or subcontractor to oversee the program, to ensure paperwork is handled properly and keep mistakes to a minimum.
Unfortunately, he said, “the grower still has all the responsibility.”

Ryan Lockman, production and marketing manager for North Bay Produce, Inc. in Traverse City, MI, says the labor shortage and increased costs of production—for everything from labor to chemicals to packaging—are definitely affecting the industry.

As a grower-owned cooperative for blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and other items, it is particularly painful when crops are left in the field, untouched.

“There’s fruit that doesn’t get picked sometimes,” Lockman said.

Like Lockman, Steve Sterling, general manager of Fresh-Link Produce, LLC in Lake Park, GA, sees the labor shortage and rising competition reducing revenue for growers, who may turn away from labor-intensive crops for the fresh market to less lucrative processing.

“You won’t get the type of money you’d get for fall berries, but you’ll recoup some,” he said, but admits the money probably “won’t be the return you were looking for.”

This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full version.