Traverse City Record-Eagle

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October 16, 2013

Migrant worker shortage hits orchards in Traverse City area

TRAVERSE CITY — Apples in many area orchards could go unpicked this season because of a shortage of migrant workers, area farmers and agricultural officials said.

“It’s very difficult to get the workers,” Benzie apple grower Mike Evans said Tuesday. “Mainly, I think it’s the immigration policy or lack of it. The other part of it is that we were short-cropped last year and migrant workers have found other jobs and didn’t come back.”

A March 2012 storm, followed by excessive heat and a late frost, wiped out 90 percent of the region’s tart cherry crop and much of its apple crop. Federal officials’ failure to agree on immigration reform policies also affected the migrant labor force in Michigan in recent years.

Evans said he has had migrant work crews lined up two or three times this season, only to have them disappear or not show up.

“They went elsewhere and some even went South,” he said. “I think some apple farmers are paying a lot to get crews this year.”

Nikki Rothwell, coordinator at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Center in Leelanau County, said not all growers and vineyards are affected.

“But there is a definite shortage,” she said, noting that worker shortages generally follow poor harvest seasons.

Some affected growers, particularly in the Grand Rapids area, are prioritizing and picking only varieties that have the best financial return, said Jim Bardenhagen, an area fruit and vegetable farmer and retired 20-year Leelanau County extension director.

Bardenhagen said several area farmers told him that only about half of migrant workers needed to pick apples in the region came to northwestern lower Michigan this year and that many are new to the work. He personally lost only one worker in his crew of three. Area crews generally can vary from about five to 30.

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