Michigan harvest is in, but workers are in short supply

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Alpine Township — – Michigan farmers are struggling to find migrant workers to harvest fruit and vegetables.

“Last year was very tight. This is a lot worse,” said Katie Rasch, associate labor program coordinator for the Michigan Farm Bureau’s Great Lakes Ag Labor Services.

Aging laborers, travel and immigration laws are taking a toll.

“Family structures that used to come are aging out. Borders are tighter – different state laws or perception of law enforcement – (and that) means many workers are not making it this far north,” said Rasch, whose job is to help farmers find workers.

The massive crop freeze in 2012 made things worse, said Ken Silfven, communications director for the Michigan Talent Investment Agency, a state office created in March to match workers with employers’ needs.

“We lost everything,” Silfven said. “Those workers, they never came back to Michigan, hundreds even thousands of them, so they end up going out west.”

Steve Klackle, who farms 250 acres of apples on his 600-acre Klackle Orchards west of Greenville, agrees with Silfven.

“Some laborers found other jobs in construction, the food industry and others,” Klackle said. He’s waiting for some of his 50 laborers to finish work in southwest Michigan, but has been assured they will be in Greenville next week.

Migrant and seasonal farm workers are concentrated on the state’s west side, according to the Michigan Interagency Migrant Services Committee. Tops is Ottawa County with about 7,000 – double the combined total of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Monroe counties. Van Buren and Oceana counties are second and third in hiring 6,500 and 3,600 respectively.

Because of the shortage of Americans who do migrant work, farmers have turned to the federal H-2A program, which provides temporary visas to non-American farm workers. It has been available for decades but not used much in Michigan because of its complexity.

In 2014, the first year of a pilot program, the Farm Bureau brought in about 90 H-2A workers from Mexico through a recruiting specialist. This year, the agency helped bring 350 workers to west Michigan, 407 statewide. Many more came into Michigan through other agencies, Rasch said.

Why use H-2A workers? “Just availability, because if there is no one here, we have to look other places,” Rasch said.

According to state figures in 2013, the last year for which data are available, Michigan had nearly 50,000 migrant and seasonal employees working in fields, nurseries, food processing and reforestation. Family members working in that industry boosted the total to more than 90,000.

Michigan ranks fifth among the states in employment of migrant farm workers. California is first.

The state has enough camps to house 23,000 workers, said Gerardo Aranda, monitor advocate for the state’s Workforce Development Agency. Part of the agency’s role is to ensure laborers do not sit idle for a week or two. “They come up to make money,” Aranda said, noting 13 field agents help fill gaps on farms that need assistance.

Other agencies, such as the Farm Bureau, can get workers from outside the country, he added.

The work is difficult. One current farm listing says laborers must carry a 20-pound bag down 8-10 foot ladders up to 12 hours per day. Wages can be $17 per 18-bushel bin,with a minimum of $8.15 per hour. There can also be a $1-per-bin bonus for employees who work all fall, generally late September through mid-November.

Hector Gonzales, 33, a federal H-2A worker, picks fruit at Chase Farms in Kent County’s Alpine Township about 2,000 miles from his home in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

The program, he said, has worked well for him.

“I like this place very much,” he said.