The Land: Labor shortage hits local cherry industry.

July 15, 2020

The Land: Labor shortage hits local cherry industry.

By Allison Scarbrough and Rob Alway, Media Group 31.

The Land is a series telling the stories about local agriculture. It is a presentation of Peterson Farms, Inc.

OCEANA COUNTY — A labor shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting local farmers hard, and cherry farmers right now are feeling the sting.

“There is an enticement not to work,” said Julie Gordon, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute. “The main struggle is that production plant workers would rather be on unemployment with the $600 bonus.” Unemployment benefits in Michigan increased by $600 a week due to COVID-19. As a result, most workers receive more money from unemployment than their regular paychecks.

“Everyone is facing this problem,” Gordon said. “Across the board, all processing plants and outputs for producing ag products have a shortage due to the incentive.” Not only is the issue adversely affecting processors, but also farms and trucking companies. “Michigan agricultural as a whole” is impacted, she said.

“We are in a massive labor crisis,” said Michael DeRuiter of DeRuiter Farms, based in Hart Township in Oceana County. “With the extra $600 a week in unemployment, there is no incentive to work. Michigan agriculture is taking a major hit in this. This is a legitimate crisis, and there are going to be several farms that will be declaring bankruptcy.”

Nikki Rothwell, MSU Extension specialist and North West Michigan Horticultural Research Center Coordinator, also cited a worker shortage due to COVID-19. “Working on the line (in a processing facility) makes it difficult to social distance,” Rothwell said. “Rumors of other workers having COVID-19 cause people to be wary of going to work.”

DeRuiter said state and federal regulations related to COVID have also made food harvesting and processing extremely challenging.

“I have my place on lockdown,” DeRuiter said. “There are so many rules to follow and we are trying our best to follow them, but it’s nearly impossible.”

DeRuiter, who sits on the Michigan Farm Bureau board of directors, said he knows of several vegetable farmers who have been told by their processors to forego harvesting this year, meaning millions of pounds of food will be thrown away.

There is one silver lining to COVID-19’s impact on the local cherry industry, however. Grower prices have risen due to the pandemic slightly slowing imports, Gordon said. “It raised grower prices, which was very much needed.”

In recent years, grower prices were “far below” a farmer’s ability to break even, Gordon said, due to imports flooding the domestic market. The break-even price is 25 cents per pound, and recent years have seen prices at 14 cents. It wasn’t worth it for many farmers to even shake the cherries off the trees if they weren’t going to make a profit. “They weren’t even making back what it cost them to produce.”

Fortunately, this year the cherry farmers will be making a profit for the first time in recent years. Farmers also can breathe a sigh of relief that this summer’s hot conditions did not take a toll on cherry quality.

A late spring frost also caused crop damage. Though this is typically not good news for yields, it was actually a slight blessing this year.

Daryl Peterson, of Bushel Basket Orchards, Inc. of Summit Township in Mason County, said this year’s harvest will be quick.

“It’s a light crop,” Peterson said. “We had several freeze events back in May with temperatures down to 26 to 28 degrees for four nights in a row just prior to blossom. It killed off flowers while still in the buds. With the shorter crop this year, the market has gotten tighter and consequently the inventory we did have we are going to be in better shape getting that sold.”

Peterson has about 300 acres of tart cherries with David Wright of Riverton Township. He said he expects to be done harvesting early next week. Deruiter grows about 800 acres of tart cherries. He began harvesting Monday and expects to be done Thursday. Normally the season is two to three weeks.

 

“Everyone is in the throes of harvesting tart cherries,” said Rothwell. “The quality is excellent, especially for a hot, dry year.” Extreme heat can cause the soft fruit to quickly turn to mush. “They have to be processed quickly, because they are quickly perishable. Tart cherries go right for processing because they are a soft fruit.”

The hotter conditions made for an earlier harvest, Gordon said. The cherry harvest is normally rather short-lived. Farmers work long hours during cherry season – starting their days at 4 a.m. and ending them at midnight, she said.

“It’s a very nice crop of sweet cherries this year,” said Gordon. Although, there was some damage to the tart cherries due to frost in mid-May. Both Deruiter and Peterson agreed that the quality of the crop is excellent this season.

The season is wrapping up, but the fresh cherries will be available at markets through mid-August. However, local cherry products are available all year long in many forms, such as dry cherries, juice, canned products, pie filling, etc. Many of Michigan’s sweet cherries are brined into maraschino cherries that we eat atop ice cream sundaes and use to garnish cocktails. Most of the tart cherries are used for pie filling.

Oceana County is Michigan’s second largest cherry producer behind Leelanau County, Rothwell said. Michigan produces 75 percent of US tart cherries. There are 32,000 acres in Michigan for growing tart cherries, producing an average of 180 million pounds of the fruit.

Tart cherries have encountered several challenges over the last few years due to weather, import issues and an invasive pest — the spotted-wing drosophila.

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This story is copyrighted © 2020, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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