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Some specialty crop growers tearing up orchards, fields, over "perfect storm" of issues

Tart cherries being harvested in northern Michigan
Nate Chesher
Cherry Marketing Institute
Tart cherries being harvested in northern Michigan

Experts say many growers of fruits and vegetables in Michigan are struggling to stay in business — and some are even getting out of the business.

Theresa Sisung is with the Michigan Farm Bureau. She said apple, cherry, asparagus, and other specialty crop producers are facing a dramatic rise in labor costs — in addition to trouble finding enough workers — and more competition from imports.

Sisung said over the past decade, labor costs have risen nearly 60% - in large part due to federally mandated hourly wage increases for H2A visas for temporary agricultural workers.

At the same time, Sisung said competition from crop imports has been increasing, due in part to foreign producers now shipping crops to the U.S. year-round, whereas in the past, those crops might have shown up when domestic crops weren't being grown.

And, she said, labor costs in many other countries are lower than in the U.S.

"They can bring those products in here sometimes cheaper than what we can grow — many times cheaper — than what we can grow them for here in our state," said Sisung.

Nate Chesher is with the Cherry Marketing Institute. He agreed that labor costs are a big part of the problem.

"It's up to over $18 an hour right now so that's a cost our growers have to have to absorb," he said. "And chemicals are more expensive, gasoline is more expensive to drive the product to the processor — so processor costs have gone through the roof as well. Electricity, you name it. So, it's kind of a perfect storm for challenges."

Chesher said right now there's a lot of people advocating for the federal government to hold wages where they are for workers in the U.S. on H-2A visas, so farmers can make financial plans for the next season's crops.

Sisung said while some growers are switching to other crops that are easier to grow and harvest, like corn and soybeans, it's a worry that some growers are simply selling their farms and getting out of the business altogether.

"We should look at this as a longer term problem," she said. "Because we need to decide, do we want to continue to grow these specialty crops and fruits and vegetables here in our country, or do we want to import them?"

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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