More than Just a Labor of Love


Growers Talk Worker Shortages, Weather Challenges and More

Like other Florida fruit and vegetable growers, Gary Wishnatzki has struggled to find domestic workers to pick his crop. This year, he brought in his first guest workers to pick strawberries. “Labor is in control of how many berries that can be picked in a day,” he says. “They’re filling the gap for us. I feel pretty confident we’ll get the whole crop.” [emember_protected custom_msg=”Click here and register now to read the rest of the article!”]

Wishnatzki owns Wish Farms, a Plant City marketing firm, and G & D Farms in Duette in northern Manatee County. “I think it’s the short term answer anyway,” he adds. “We’re left with no choice. It wasn’t our first choice.”

Florida’s fruit and vegetable growers are facing a number of challenges, including winter freezes, competition, and labor shortages. Migrant workers are often hired to pick strawberries, tomatoes, and other crops that do not work well with mechanical harvesters.

“Hands down, our biggest challenge right now is labor. Agriculture needs access to a legal, stable, and experienced workforce,” says Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA). “Right now, the only tool available to growers to bring in the necessary workforce is the H-2A guest-worker visa program, and it’s not a great option. Some growers have managed to make it work for them. But it’s slow, cumbersome, unreliable, and expensive.”

Worker Shortages
FFVA is working with a nationwide alliance called the Agriculture Workforce Coalition to lobby for the industry. “The good news is that it appears the U.S. House is ready to follow in the Senate’s steps and move forward in some fashion on immigration reform,” she says. “FFVA strongly encourages those in the agriculture community to call their congressional representative and urge him or her to support immigration reform with a workforce to meet agriculture’s unique needs.”

Ted Campbell, executive director of Dover’s Florida Strawberry Growers Association, agrees labor is a big problem. “Labor, labor, labor. Those are our three biggest problems,” he says. “We’re very dependent upon immigrants [. . .] Fifty percent of our cost of product is labor.”

“Many people just don’t realize it’s physically impossible for unemployed Americans in cities to fill jobs of hand laborers who move from crop to crop in rural areas,” Campbell explains. “We can’t attract American labor, even though there’s high unemployment. They [the pickers] work hard and don’t have an easy job.”

Yet the wages are better here than in other countries, where they may make in a week what they make here in an hour. “A good strawberry picker can make $20 an hour. We have probably the most elite pickers out there,” he states.

On average, however, strawberry pickers make $11 or $12 an hour. Domestic employees typically work only two or three hours before walking off the job. “Rarely will we get one that will stick,” he says, adding that “it takes physical stamina. I couldn’t do it.”

Machines can be used to pick snap beans, although the quality is not equal to hand-picked beans, says Gene McAvoy, regional vegetable extension agent for University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) in LaBelle. “A few guys can grow a lot of beans if you get the machinery, and you don’t have the labor headaches,” he says. Snap beans are often grown in rotation with other crops such as corn and sugar cane.

Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, has been working for immigration reform, an issue that has been festering for a decade. He calls the labor problem a “global threat” that affects all hand-harvested fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes. “To date we do not have any viable system that will harvest fresh tomatoes mechanically,” Brown says.

Tomato growers are struggling for market share after price dumping by Mexicans. Imported Mexican tomatoes are their primary competitor; one out of two tomatoes is from Mexico. The tomato industry has shrunk over the last decade, although it has made progress through border controls.

“We’re hoping to have made some improvement,” says Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange. “It remains to be seen what the actual result will be.”

Weather Challenges and More
For growers, weather is a common challenge. In January, the “hardest hit” was green beans, although sugar cane and sweet corn also was damaged, Lochridge says. “There was scattered damage from cold snaps totaling a few hundred acres across South Florida, where temperatures dipped below the freezing mark on a few occasions,” she says. “Volume from the winter crop will be affected until the spring production ramps up in late March and first of April.” Even 40-degree wind can hurt green beans, McAvoy adds. A freeze can turn them brown overnight.

Wishnatzki remains optimistic about the strawberry season, although area production suffered because of a warm fall and unusual amount of cold weather in January. “January freezes should be setting us up for a strong March,” he asserts.

For watermelon growers, weather is the primary challenge. South Florida growers have started planting, while Central Florida growers were waiting for freeze threats to pass. “We have our ups and downs . . . just like any ag industry,” says Bob Morrissey, executive director of the National Watermelon Association based in Lakeland. “Everything seems to be driven by Mother Nature. If she is good to us, and gives us just the rain that we need, and doesn’t bring in a freeze, then they’re in great shape.” Watermelons don’t benefit from sprinklers during freezes like other crops. When a freeze comes, they have to replant.

Watermelon growers did face a major challenge from watermelon vine decline seven years ago that cost them more than $60 million in Florida over a five-year period. By discovering a previously unknown virus, and adopting a spray management program, the industry was saved. “We were lucky. We hit the jackpot,” Morrissey says.

A limited water supply has curbed the growth of strawberry industry in the Plant City/Dover area, where 90 percent of the state’s strawberry industry is located. Yet the sandy, well-drained soil, is ideal for strawberries watered and fed through underground drip irrigation, Campbell says.

Nursery growers are selling the patented Florida varieties around the world. “People in Moscow are eating Florida strawberries. It’s pretty cool,” he says. “Everybody in the world loves strawberries.”

CREDITS

story by CHERYL ROGERS
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