Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor
Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor

Although they escaped fall hurricanes and disastrous winter freezes, some Florida grower-shippers are dealing with another crisis.

The tight labor supply is causing some production disruptions and forcing some growers to prematurely end their harvesting.

Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms was forced to forego harvesting some of its strawberry fields because it didn’t have enough labor to finish picking all the berries.

Typically, growers in the spring double-crop their strawberry fields with vegetables including bell peppers.

Usually they continue the berry harvesting from the plants’ last hands or fruit sets while planting peppers in the beds.

Planting peppers in the same beds with strawberries requires workers to manually remove the strawberry plants once they’ve finished producing fruit.

This year, however, Wish Farms opted to spray the still-producing strawberry plants with paraquat herbicide rather than use nonexistent labor to keep harvesting, said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer.

“In our fields, we had over 100 acres we had to stop picking on because we couldn’t keep up with it,” he said.

“Those fields alone cost us quite a bit of volume. We’ve been seeing this in the last couple of years and everyone is having labor issues this year. The trend has been there but this year, it’s really bad.”

Though workers typically migrate to blueberries after strawberries finish, Wishnatzki said an expected earlier-than-normal blueberry harvest could further complicate things.

“To not be able to keep up with everything, especially this early in the season, it’s a major issue now and I know I’m not out of step with the rest of the industry,” he said in mid-February.

“It will get worse and will become an even bigger issue as time goes by.”

Early end to harvest

On the flip side, because of the industry’s heavy reliance on the early maturing radiance variety, Wishnatzki said the season could likely finish in early March, a few weeks earlier than usual.

He estimates the new variety accounts for as much as 60% of the deal’s plantings.

While he’s not sure how widespread such problems are, Michael Carlton, director of labor relations for the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said Florida growers have been battling these types of problems in recent years.

He said labor issues vary by grower.

“It’s an almost baffling situation,” Carlton said.

“You talk with one grower and they’re OK with their labor. The next one, you see beads of sweat popping out of his head as he worries about it. It’s all over the board.”

Carlton said Florida and other states are experiencing the effects of a very tight labor market as the gradual reduction in the size of the work force continues.

He said the states of the U.S. economy and an improving Mexican economy further irritate an already delicate situation.

In late February, Carlton said he hasn’t heard from growers who are literally at the point where they won’t be able to finish their harvests. Labor may be tight and their operations may experience some small shortages, but the labor situation isn’t making them fall behind on production, he said.

Carlton said he doesn’t foresee any improvement in the tight workforce anytime soon.

“We have rolled along in agriculture a long time with a very comfortable labor situation. We aren’t comfortable anymore.”

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