Worried about labor
Blueberry grower Steve Hunt heads Michigan State Horticultural Society.
The bed-forming tool shapes the bed, inserts two irrigation tube lines, one on each side of the future row, and lays down landscaping fabric to subdue weeds and reduce reliance on herbicides.
Photo by Richard Lehnert
Steve Hunt, the incoming president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society, grows only one kind of fruit—blueberries—about 110 acres worth.
He’s been doing it for 32 years, starting work on a grower’s farm when he was 24 years old and gradually buying in until he started his own company, New Horizon Harvest Corporation, about 20 years ago.
His farms are located near Grand Junction, the heart of Michigan’s blueberry country and the headquarters of MBG Marketing, of which Hunt is a member and which sells all the fruit he produces.
The entire fruit industry now seems to have focused on one key issue for which they are demanding a solution: legal seasonal labor. So, Hunt is taking over the helm of the hort society at an important time.
“We have to keep the pressure on Washington, D.C., because we need easy access to good hand labor,” he said.
Interestingly, as a blueberry grower, he has a somewhat different take on labor than most growers of other kinds of fruit. For one thing, blueberry harvest is just about half mechanized, and, in a real labor crunch, it could mechanize completely. Over-the-row harvesters work well, and have for some years.
“About 70 percent of the berries I grow are sold fresh market, and they are all picked by hand,” he said. “The other 30 percent is sold for processing and is all machine harvested. But some growers are shifting totally to machine harvest, not only for the processed market but for fresh market as well. It takes a lot of electronic sorting, and there is a lot of shrinkage, but it is possible to pick fresh market fruit by machine.”
This year, Hunt had about two-thirds of a full crop. The freezes that wiped out so many of Michigan’s apples, peaches, pears, and cherries did only moderate damage to his blueberries.
Still, even with a short crop, Hunt experienced labor shortages this year. “Because there were no apples to pick, many workers didn’t come to Michigan,” Hunt said. Seasonal workers in Michigan come early to harvest asparagus in May and June, go into blueberries and peaches for the summer, then move into apples for the fall. Asparagus, the season starter, was also damaged by spring freezes this year.
“Even though the crop size was down, we got behind a number of times because we didn’t have enough pickers,” he said. “When you get behind, berries get soft and quality suffers.” This year, his season started early, June 18, because of the warm spring, and ended September 7, earlier than usual.
Hunt has very little faith that Congress will address immigration issues any time soon, and he has no faith at all that we’ll ever recover old attitudes toward blueberry plantation work.
Historically, he said, blueberry harvest was considered good work, easy work, and safe work not involving ladders. Elderly people, teachers on summer vacation, and families with children used to provide local labor that would help with the blueberry harvest.
“I remember a retired 86-year-old who used to pick for me because he liked to do it and made a few dollars,” Hunt said. “He didn’t worry about how fast he was picking; he’d rest when he got tired.”
But the rules now make that impossible. Hunt’s workers work on piece rate, but they are guaranteed the minimum wage by law. “If a person can’t pick enough to make minimum wage, then I can’t afford to hire him,” Hunt said.
Three years ago, a neighboring blueberry grower gained nationwide attention—and fines and recrimination—when it was discovered that children on his farm were allegedly picking blueberries into their parents’ containers. The parents had brought the children with them to the plantation one day (without the grower’s knowledge) because their daycare center was closed and the parents needed to either stay home or bring their children to work with them.
Rules today say, every picker must be on the payroll and get a check in his or her own name. And no underage child can work.
“These are good rules, and the industry follows them. It just seems sad that people today are so detached from the world of farming.”
He asks the question, “Where do you want your food to come from? Would you like it to come from other countries that have limited food safety protocols and weak child labor laws? We need to keep our farms profitable, and farms need a reliable, affordable, and legal labor pool.”
In the blueberry business, world production is exploding. In Michigan, which was the leading producing state for a long time, many growers complain they are being forced to live by rules others won’t have to. Will American consumers concern themselves with child labor as the Chinese expand in blueberries and want to sell them here?
Before reaching the top position in the Michigan State Horticultural Society, Hunt was active on the committee encouraging growers to contribute to the society’s 501(c)(3) trust fund. The fund is about a million dollars and generates about $50,000 a year that is used to support horticultural research, extension, and educational projects. Funds are applied for, and recommendations are made by a separate committee and then approved by the entire board of directors of the hort society.
“More and more, we will have to fund the needed research ourselves,” he said. “We can’t rely on our state universities as much as we used to. In fact, we feel our land-grant university is turning its back on us a bit, cutting corners and consolidating programs. We have spent 150 years building up this base of knowledge and professionals, and now public support for it seems to be withering away. Donating to the trust fund is one way growers can keep American agriculture on the cutting edge.”