Labor shortage troubles NatureFresh

NatureFresh Farms will delay expansion of its intended 180-acre greenhouse complex in Delta until it can resolve a pressing problem: finding employees who accept hard work.

President and CEO Peter Quiring said last week a lack of people willing to perform labor-intensive jobs has caused a labor shortage and a shutdown of production three months of the year. He said until a solution is found the company will rein back its plans to construct a total of 12 15-acre greenhouses planned for the site by 2022.

“The reality is, Canadians and Americans don’t want to do agricultural work,” Quiring said. “Anybody in agriculture has a similar problem.”

The Leamington, Ontario, Canada company routinely employs 45 agricultural workers from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico for the Delta operation through the H-2A visa program. The foreign nationals fill labor-intensive positions at the greenhouses the local work force often won’t touch. However, the visa program permits the foreign workers to stay only nine months, leaving Nature Fresh to replace them for three months with local people.

Quiring said that’s where the problem arises.

“We hire a lot of people, but they either don’t show up or they show up and don’t last. A lot of people say, ‘This isn’t is for me,‘“he said.

The hard labor is performed in a hot greenhouse atmosphere, which many people find too physically demanding, he said. So the company brings in foreign workers conditioned to that work environment.

In fairness, Quiring said, the shortage of workers is exacerbated by an economy much improved from five years ago. “It’s a small community. There’s only so many people, and a lot of them are working,” he said.

But NatureFresh also finds that 40 percent of prospective employees can’t pass a mandatory drug test that doesn’t count marijuana use.

Ray Wowryk, NatureFresh director of business development, said though they’re backed by the strength of an additional 207 full-time positions, those 45 labor-intensive jobs are crucial to NatureFresh’s overall production.

“We need the fruit coming off the vine,” he said. “It still requires a skilled force that we do not have in North America anymore. These are crop workers, and when you have them working for nine months, and they have a void for three months, it hits you big time. We can’t harvest a box of fruit for three months.”

Wowryk likened the employee shortage to a a garage without mechanics, and said technology can take the company only so far.

“It’s like the difference between having ditch diggers and doing the work with a backhoe. Unfortunately, we need the ditch diggers,” he said. The three months without the H-2A workers has been used to clean the operating greenhouses and to replant.

The company continues to attract applicants, Wowryk said. But when local people seeking work are introduced to the type of farm labor NatureFresh requires, “it’s very intensive, and they’re not accustomed to that type of labor,” he said. “When you introduce it to any area, our general public trying to enter into this work force say it’s too hard. Their perception of what greenhouse work is becomes very discouraging.”

And when NatureFresh must constantly train new people to replace those who walk away the cost of operation develops dramatically. “It affects overall productivity throughout the whole farm,” Wowryk said.

Matt Gilroy, executive director of the Fulton County Economic Development Corporation, said a four percent unemployment rate in the county can account for some of NatureFresh’s trouble drawing employees.

“There’s a shortage of labor across industries, not only across Fulton County, not only across northwest Ohio…There’s a labor shortage across the United States as it relates to agriculture and industry,” he said. “We in Fulton County specifically are doing some action planning to try to mitigate those challenges that employers have in terms of recruiting the labor pool that they need to do the work in front of them.”

Gilroy conceded, however, that attracting physical laborers is becoming more difficult. He said work in general has changed in the U.S. over the last generation or two, with many younger people moving into service- and computer-oriented positions.

“Things have changed to where the young people aren’t conditioned (for physical labor) the way we were,” he said. “There’s some legitimate concern in regard to the responsibilities that the labor pool has, and how they go about their work. It’s definitely a challenge that needs some attention, and needs to be resolved.”

Still, Gilroy said, he would put the local work force above the quality of most places across the country.

Quiring said the problem remains that local help to fill in for the departing H-2A workers is scarce. He said that makes it difficult to maintain what was designed to be a year-round operation.

“It’s when they leave that we can’t replace them at all, so that’s the issue,” he said.

In the meantime, economics will drive NatureFresh’s decision to place a timeline on expansion, Wowryk said. “It’s all driven by that. Economics is always the sustainability in that marketplace. You find a way to overcome your challenges, and that’s what we’re doing,”

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NatureFresh Farms in Delta is having a difficult time finding and keeping employees to perform labor-intensive work in their greenhouses. Farms in Delta is having a difficult time finding and keeping employees to perform labor-intensive work in their greenhouses. David J. Coehrs|Fulton County Expositor
Hard jobs unwanted

By David J. Coehrs

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.