Labor concerns loom for Michigan asparagus industry

Frost damage in west-central Michigan’s asparagus crop is minor compared to that industry’s labor concerns for the year.

John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, indicated that there was significant frost damage to his industry’s crop on the evening of May 16.

Eighty percent of the asparagus fields in west-central Michigan had frost damage, “but we are just waiting for it to re-grow,” Bakker said May 19. “We will be harvesting again mid- to late this week. The forecast is good and we didn’t lose a lot of production,” in part due to the crop being late this year.

“We started very late,” he said. “Spring wouldn’t come this year. It was a hard winter and a cold spring. We are a couple of weeks behind.”

Asparagus growers with fields in southern Michigan didn’t begin harvest until about May 9. It was only a few days before May 16 that the state’s northern asparagus fields were frozen. But, those fields will quickly rebound and Bakker expects Michigan’s asparagus harvest to run through June.

Marketed volume in 2014 should about equal to 2013 Michigan asparagus volume of 20 million pounds. About 8 million pounds will to go to the fresh market this year, with the remainder of the total going to the processing market. The fresh market share has risen in two years to about 40 percent from 20-25 percent. Bakker said in another two years about half the state’s asparagus will go to the fresh market.

When Bakker was told that The Produce News had seen Peruvian asparagus in a Michigan warehouse on May 15, he responded, “I’m not surprised.” He said Michigan growers enjoy “a high demand” that is driven in large part by Midwesterners’ interest in locally grown produce. “There are times you could buy Peru or Mexican asparagus cheaper. What we are willing to sell for would be the question.”

Bakker said the strong demand would naturally be expected to drive growers to increase asparagus production in Michigan. A major intervening factor, however, has been inadequate labor to harvest the crop.

A lack of labor “is about to crush the industry. Last year we mowed off 10 percent of the crop because there was no labor to harvest it. This year we are easing in to harvest but when we hit our stride over the weekend” there may be more problems.

Michigan asparagus growers are talking with other Michigan commodity groups — including sweet cherries, apples, blueberries and peaches — about cooperating to create an H2A foreign labor program.

“We are all in the same situation,” he said. “We are working on creating a statewide association.”

This would be especially useful in Michigan because of the horticultural crop diversity, which brings a demand for labor from May 1 until the end of October. The Michigan Farm Bureau might start a pilot program with Michigan apple growers this fall, he said. If this succeeds, there will be a program expansion.

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