Possible frost tonight threatens asparagus; worker shortage continues

May 19, 2015

asparagusBy Allison Scarbrough. OCP Editor.

HART — Since the asparagus season began two weeks ago, Oceana farmers and processors have been experiencing a major worker shortage. Now, a cold front that hit overnight Monday, May 18, is threatening crops as forecasters are saying there is a possibility of frost Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

“If we get frost, it could be a disaster,” said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, who has an office in Hart. “If temperatures dip below freezing tonight, we could lose another one million pounds of asparagus.” A freeze warning issued by the National Weather Service, which includes Oceana County, is in effect from midnight until 8 a.m. Wednesday, May 20. The warning states that the time frame of the greatest risk is from 2-7 a.m.

If the possible freeze tonight isn’t enough for farmers to worry about, they also have a worker shortage. That issue already caused  “in excess of a million pounds” that had to be mowed off, Bakker said.

“Mowers were out Sunday through yesterday,” he said. One mowing equals a loss of three harvests, he said. “It puts them out of production for about a week.”

Due to the worker shortage, Oceana County has experienced an economic loss of about $2 million, with $1.5 million lost by farmers and $.5 million lost by processors.

When the season began, asparagus was selling for $1.50-$2 per pound, he said. That price has dropped down, which normally happens during the season. The price is currently in the $1 range, but is expected to “strengthen” soon, Bakker said. “It fluctuates over the season.”

“The workforce is shrinking in size,” Bakker said. “It’s nothing new. The industry has been experiencing number shortages for years. There are less migrants to harvest crops everywhere. Other states are saying the same thing.”

As far as why there are fewer workers, the answer is not really clear, Bakker said. For some reason, many of the local unemployed workers are not applying for the picking jobs.

The “vast majority” of asparagus pickers are paid by the pound — not the hour, and it takes a certain amount of skill to be able to attain the wage that average workers make, which is about $14 per hour. “Not anyone can make that amount of money,” Bakker said. However, Bakker said he does not think the pay rate is causing the worker shortage.

In addition to fewer pickers, there is “a new wrinkle this year,” Bakker said, as processing facilities are also lacking enough laborers. “Local processors, fresh packers, along with farmers, are reporting shortages,” he said.

Those interested in working, should contact the Michigan Works office in Shelby at 231-981-4230. All Oceana County work orders and job offers in the asparagus industry have been placed in that office, Bakker said.

Oceana County is the largest producer of asparagus in the state, producing 20 million pounds last season. “That is half a billion spears that are snapped by hand,” Bakker said. Oceana could very well be the largest asparagus county in the nation based on acreage, but that has not been verified. Oceana County boasts 6,000-7,000 acres of the green veggie and approximately 70 farms. Todd Greiner Farms in Hart is second largest asparagus producer of both fresh and packed asparagus in the state, he said.

The asparagus season is expected to continue until the about the third week in June, and local consumers can expect to see it in stores until the beginning of July.

This year’s yield is expected to be about the same as last year, the asparagus expert said. Last year’s crop totaled eight million pounds of fresh asparagus and 12 million pounds of the vegetable in processed form. “This year, we expect the fresh market to be up by one million pounds,” he said, which will be about 50/50 for fresh vs. processed markets.

Michigan is the second largest producer of asparagus in the U.S., second to California. Michigan surpassed asparagus production in Washington last year, Bakker said. Michigan’s asparagus industry has remained stable in recent years, whereas California’s and Washington’s have dropped.