Good Fruit Grower

December 2012

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WORRIED about labor S His farms are located near Grand Junction, the heart of Michigan's blueberry country and the headquarters of MBG Marketing, of which Hunt is a member and which sells all the fruit he produces. Labor concerns Blueberry grower Steve Hunt heads Michigan State Horticultural Society. The entire fruit industry now seems to have focused on one key issue for which they are demanding a solution: legal seasonal labor. So, Hunt is taking over the helm of the hort society at an important time. "We have to keep the pressure on Washington, D.C., because we need easy access to good hand labor," he said. Interestingly, as a blueberry grower, he has a somewhat different take on labor than most growers of other kinds of fruit. For one thing, blue- berry harvest is just about half mechanized, and, in a real labor crunch, it could mechanize completely. Over-the-row harvesters work well, and have for some years. "About 70 percent of the berries I grow are sold fresh market, and they by Richard Lehnert are all picked by hand," he said. "The other 30 percent is sold for process- ing and is all machine harvested. But some growers are shifting totally to machine harvest, not only for the processed market but for fresh market as well. It takes a lot of electronic sorting, and there is a lot of shrinkage, but it is possible to pick fresh market fruit by machine." This year, Hunt had about two-thirds of a full crop. The freezes that wiped out so many of Michigan's apples, peaches, pears, and cherries did only moderate damage to his blueberries. Still, even with a short crop, Hunt experienced labor shortages this year. "Because there were no apples to pick, many workers didn't come to Michigan," Hunt said. Sea- sonal workers in Michigan come early to harvest asparagus in May and June, go into blueberries and peaches for the summer, then move into apples for the fall. Asparagus, the season starter, was also damaged by spring freezes this year. "Even though the crop size was down, we got behind a number of times because we didn't have enough pickers," he said. "When you get behind, berries get soft and quality suffers." This year, his season started early, June 18, because of the warm spring, and ended September 7, earlier than usual. Little faith Hunt has very little faith that Congress will address immigration issues any time soon, and he has no faith at all that we'll ever recover old attitudes toward blueberry plantation work. Historically, he said, blueberry harvest was considered good work, easy work, and safe work not involving ladders. Elderly people, teachers on summer vacation, and families with children used to provide local labor that would help with the blueberry harvest. "I remember a retired 86-year-old who used to pick for me because he liked to do it and made a few dollars," Hunt said. "He didn't worry about how fast he was picking; he'd rest when he got tired." But the rules now make that impossible. Hunt's workers work on piece rate, but they are guaranteed the minimum wage by law. "If a person can't pick enough to make minimum wage, then I can't afford to hire him," Hunt said. Three years ago, a neighboring blueberry grower gained nationwide attention—and fines and recrimination—when it was discovered that children on his farm were allegedly picking blueberries into their parents' containers. The parents had brought the children 52 DECEMBER 2012 GOOD FRUIT GROWER teve Hunt, the incoming president of the Michigan State Horticultural Society, grows only one kind of fruit—blueberries—about 110 acres worth. He's been doing it for 32 years, starting work on a grower's farm when he was 24 years old and gradually buying in until he started his own company, New Horizon Harvest Corporation, about 20 years ago.

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