Dairy and asparagus have some very basic things in common.
Both products rely on a lot of hand labor; both industries struggle with finding capable, affordable labor; both industries are being squeezed to get as much production as possible at the lowest cost possible to make up for decreases in pay prices; and both asparagus and dairy farmers love agriculture and what they are doing and are proud when their businesses can be passed on to the next generation.
With the asparagus season just coming into full swing, thanks to a cool slow spring, Michigan growers are trying a new program they hope will help their ongoing labor issue.
A mature field is picked 25-35 times per season. The fast-growing crop needs to be picked once or twice a day during the short season, and that requires a great deal of labor.
'Asparagus is a very touchy crop, and when it is ready to be picked, it must be picked on time or it will be lost,' said Brad Clark, who described himself as 'very small scale' compared to other Michigan asparagus growers.
'On peak, hot days it may need to be picked twice,' he added. 'Other days it takes longer. If it stays in the field too long, the heads explode. When temperatures are hot, it can grow as much as an inch an hour.'
Because his farm is smaller, he has been able to utilize a local, extended family to harvest his crop for the last 16 years. Workers pick primarily asparagus 'cuts and tips' but do some 'orienting' for fresh market. When he started in the business, he hired about 10 workers but as production increased, so did the number of family members he hired.
They come to his farm near Hart, MI, the asparagus capital of the world, and stay in housing he provides through the duration of the asparagus season.
Because the family working for him all these years has come to know him so well, they are always pressing for an increase in pay, but Clark said, 'We're really being squeezed. The money has to come from somewhere, and this year we're taking a hit on what we're being paid for the asparagus. I tell them the only way I can give them a raise is if they increase the number of pounds they pick. If they can increase what they pick by 10 percent I'll give them a 10 percent raise.'
This year, the established price paid for asparagus sold to the processing market is down so it is likely more growers will enter the fresh asparagus market. While more and more consumers are recognizing the health value of asparagus and demand is up, the added production to the fresh market is still translating into lower prices.
Continued labor issues
Michigan growers had been hoping that Congress would pass some sort of immigration reform package that would include an improved and expanded seasonal guest-worker program that would supersede H-2A and its limitations.
In the mean time, the labor pool seemed to dry up. Farm workers are getting older, getting jobs in other industries or staying in Mexico where the economy is improving and there are no difficult borders to cross.
This year, many Michigan growers are using the H-2A program to bring in migrant workers, Clark said. Through this program, the growers pay a fee, based on the pounds of production, to the agency that provides the labor, housing, transportation to local services and everything that is needed by seasonal workers.
These seasonal workers move on through all parts of Michigan's fruit and vegetable industry, beginning with asparagus, the state's earliest seasonal crop.
The H2-A program is the asparagus industry's way of addressing what is becoming a shrinking migrant stream, he said.
Clark said the migrant stream has gotten smaller and smaller to the point that many growers this year are looking at H2-A for the first time. It's not something they want to do. If they could find local workers, they certainly would hire them.
Like the dairy farmers of Wisconsin, Clark is also looking for ways to pass his business on to the next generation.
He has been in the business since 1971, raising asparagus on a former dairy farm that once belonged to his grandparents.
While he still helps on his farm, he has leased his asparagus business to his son, who also has some acreage of his own. His son has in turn brought in a couple of young growers who are interested in getting into the asparagus business full time but who were unable to join in their own family's business because it isn't big enough to support additional families.
National asparagus festival
Clark continues to be a big supporter of the asparagus industry, including helping out at the annual National Asparagus Festival of Oceana County, hosted by the communities of Hart and Shelby each year.
Michigan ranks second in the nation for asparagus production thanks to its unique, sandy loam soil. This particular soil, found most often near Michigan's west coast, is dominated by sand particles but also contains enough clay and sediment to provide structure and fertility.
About 120 local Michigan farmers produce approximately 20 million pounds of Michigan asparagus during the state's six- to seven-week harvest. The season begins in early May and ends in mid-to-late June.
More than 40 percent of the crop is sold fresh in supermarkets, restaurants, farmers markets and roadside stands.