Farmers face labor shortage and rising minimum wage
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Their success is more contingent on good weather, and theft and equipment damage is more prominent than on traditional farms, but farmers who use U-pick swear by it.
"I would pick every bit of my crop U-pick if I could," said Stuart Olson, a Salem farmer who has used U-pick for berries and fruit more than 30 years. "There is nothing more satisfying than having people say: 'Man, I really love your place.'"
With a labor shortage looming, and Oregon's second-highest-in-the-nation minimum wage increasing labor costs, many farmers are looking to U-pick as a means to harvest their fruits and vegetables.
The business model offers several benefits over traditional farming, according to experienced U-pick farm operators, including less reliance on commercial labor.
But don't expect to turn a profit right off the bat, farmers said.
"It takes time to build up customers," Olson said. "You're not going to have a large cash flow immediately."
Also, U-pick operators say U-pickers are more likely to run over irrigation pipes and inflict other damage on farm equipment than experienced workers.
And weather conditions can play a huge role in whether crops are picked on time, Olson said.
"It all depends on the weather," Olson said. "When it's bad, things get pretty slow around here."
But the benefits of U-pick far outweigh the drawbacks, farmers said.
"One of the beauties of it is you don't have those labor costs and those regulations that are really difficult to comply with," said Barry Bushue, a Boring, Ore., farmer who began a commercial U-pick operation 10 years ago.
"We occasionally hire folks to help us out, but we no longer have a regular, permanent labor force," he said.
Bushue said he also enjoys interacting with customers.
"To us, one of the benefits is that we have a lot of people coming to the farm, so there is a relationship component, a community component and an education component," said Bushue, who is president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
"Plus, it gives people the opportunity to get out on the farm and take part in the harvest of their own food," Bushue said. "That is something the public is looking for these days."
U-pick operators say the business model can generate more revenue than selling crops to canneries.
But again there are drawbacks: U-pickers generally don't pick rows as clean as a professional picking crew, Bushue said.
"They tend to pick the big ones and leave the small ones," he said.
U-pick farmers typically don't rely solely on U-pickers to harvest their crops. Many sell through roadside fruit stands, or in farmers' markets and some still sell to canneries.
"Our philosophy is we still need some commodity crops for our operation," Olson said. "That's the only way we are going to survive."
But with the right location and the right coordination, bringing customers out to the farm to harvest a crop can be profitable and rewarding.
"It's more hours and sometimes you have to put up with crabby customers," said Graham Fordyce, of Fordyce Farm in Salem, a U-pick farm for more than 30 years. "And we've had problems with people driving through our barnyard and over irrigation pipes.
"But I absolutely love it," he said.