More farmers turning to temporary workers

Tony Wittkowski
The Herald-Palladium

Sodus, Mich. — The thought of a worker shortage has Fred Leitz worried.

Seasonal migrant workers are a necessity for farmers across Michigan who spend most of the year tending to the ground and about five months picking the fruits of their labor. A lot of fruit crops need to be handled and harvested at the right time, or else growers risk them turning to mush.

Leitz tends to 700 acres of apples, cucumbers, cantaloupe, blueberries and — his biggest crop — tomatoes, alongside his three brothers. Over time at the Sodus farm, he and his family began to notice a decrease in the number of workers who returned for each harvest.

The problem became so bad in 2013, Leitz said they left about 25 percent of the harvest in the field because it couldn’t be picked fast enough.

“The produce just rots in the field if we don’t get enough help,” Leitz told The Herald-Palladium. “In 2013, we had very good markets, good quality and good quantity in the field. That’s the trifecta that every farmer wants. Unfortunately, we had to cut our acreage back. It takes a lot to grow an acre of cucumbers. You get into the $4,000- to $6,000-per-acre range to pick anything.”

Fearing the worst, Leitz began to apply for H-2A temporary agricultural workers in 2015.

Under the federal H-2A program, farmers are required to advertise in local newspapers for job openings before accepting foreign workers. Farmers must pay for transportation to and from the foreign country, and provide housing and meals.

The H-2A program was created in the 1990s to help agricultural employers bring temporary foreign workers into the United States to do seasonal work that domestic workers could not or were not willing to do.

The H-2A visa holders live and work in the U.S. for several months at a time — but they are not considered immigrants — and the program is not seen as a pathway to citizenship.

There are no limitations on the number of temporary workers that may be admitted into the U.S. However, the program can prove costly to farmers.

Growers must also agree to pay a specified wage. In Michigan, it’s set at $12.75 an hour for 2017. When all expenses are figured in, Leitz estimates workers cost about $17 an hour.

“It’s alleviated our labor issue,” Leitz said. “But it’s a program of last resort.”

Leitz has been involved in agricultural labor issues since he was 25. Finding enough workers has become a bigger problem since the turn of the century.

There’s always been that migrant stream, where workers from Texas and Florida would work their way north during the peak summer months to Michigan, before heading back south for the end of the calendar year.

But then workers began to age out and the Mexico-U.S. border began to tighten even more. With no new workers coming across the border, the H-2A program grew in popularity.

According to a 2014 report by the American Farm Bureau Federation, undocumented workers comprise half of hired U.S. farm workers.

So far this year, nearly 6,000 agricultural visas have been approved for Michigan farmers — which is more than four times the amount approved in 2014, and more than 10 times the number in 2013.

Despite the rise in interest, farmers claim the H-2A program is inconvenient and expensive. It’s also been criticized for being easy to abuse.

In some reported instances, employers have been said to be lax on safety measures and steal wages while facing little backlash.

However, those familiar with the visa program describe it as the industry’s only legal option for getting temporary farm work done.

Mark Longstroth with the Michigan State University Extension refers to the program as a sort of “guest farm worker program.”

Three years ago was around the time Longstroth said he started to hear grumblings from Berrien and Van Buren farmers about the worker shortage.

“It’s become more and more common, especially among fruit and vegetable growers who have a hard time lining up the workers they need,” Longstroth said. “But the program tends to make things more expensive and will likely raise costs. But farmers can’t set a price when they’re wholesalers. It will dig into their profits.”

Leitz said they tried to increase their recruitment efforts in 2014, following a miss in what should have been a very profitable growing season.

“We called some of our previous workers to ask them what was going on,” Leitz said. “Basically, they said they were getting too old for harvest work, and their kids are grown and they felt they didn’t need to harvest. They stayed put.”

Leitz, the former president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, is knowledgeable on government policies and has had three years to perfect the application process.

Leitz Farms usually applies for about 150 H-2A workers. They still get domestic workers that have been coming for years, whether they are local or migrant.

All in all, Leitz said they have more than 200 people tending to the 700 acres in different jobs from picking to packaging.

“With our size operation, you have to generate a certain amount of cash flow for the land and equipment you bought,” he said. “If we hadn’t gone into the H-2A program, I dare say we would be close to out of business.”

Because the program is managed by three federal agencies — the Department of Labor, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of Homeland Security — there tends to be an unsavory amount of paperwork.

Leitz said they first have to file a petition with the state work force agency. Before it is approved, Leitz has to set aside what jobs he wants the H-2A workers to do.

Then it is forwarded to the Department of Labor. If it is approved and not sent back, the USCIS looks over the application.

Leitz said it can be a 90-day process until workers come in. During that time, they have to recruit in Mexico or any other country they are bringing workers in from. Throughout this ongoing application process, growers are required to advertise in supplier states for domestic workers.

Michigan growers advertise in South Carolina, Florida and Texas. Ironically, Leitz said farmers from those states advertise in Michigan.

“The crazy thing is we’re all sending advertisements back and forth and just laughing about it,” Leitz said. “It’s an informality. It’s giving the state work force agency something to do.”

He usually begins submitting paperwork in early February. What’s tough is farmers hardly know when their crops are going to bloom. It’s true that farmers have data from every year that can help pinpoint the starting timeline to within 10 days. But once workers arrive, farmers have to give what’s referred to as the “three-quarter guarantee.”

According to the workers’ contracts, Leitz is required to offer 40 hours of work a week. If they don’t make three quarters of that (about 30 hours), then Leitz has to pay the difference. So, timing is everything.

“You have to have good timing. If you get some cool weather and are off by 10 days, you have time that needs to be made up,” Leitz said. “It could come out of your pocket.”

Harvest for most in Southwest Michigan begins in mid to late June and ends in October. Leitz starts with cucumbers and blueberries and ends with tomatoes.

That’s why Leitz requests the first bunch of workers to arrive at the end of April to help prepare for harvest. Then the second phase of workers comes toward the end of June in three weekend increments on separate bus loads.

Leitz said he favors the program because it takes the uncertainty of labor away.

“For 20 years, I was worried about Immigration and Customs Enforcement coming in and going through all my records to say I can’t employ 80 percent of the people I have working,” he said. “That puts me out of business, to be frank about it.”

His least favorite part is going through paperwork. Despite a reprieve from ICE, the Department of Labor can stop by anytime to go through the farm’s paperwork.

In his first year with the program — about six weeks in — Leitz said six federal officers visited to view paperwork and housing, and interview people in the fields.

After two days, they left with no issues. But it was still nerve-racking partway through harvest, Leitz said.

“They do that with all H-2A growers. They say they don’t pick on the H-2A program, but they do,” Leitz said. “You can guarantee yourself a Department of Labor audit. I’ve had three of them in my lifetime without having used the program. But that’s because we’re a large employer that sticks out.”

Money can be a frustrating factor for growers in the program. In addition to paying for the workers’ visas, farmers must also account for their transportation, housing, sustenance and an hourly wage.

Because Leitz Farms is so big, the operation has had worker housing well before joining the program. Leitz compares the housing to dorm rooms. Workers only come with the clothes on their back and a suitcase, so farmers have to supply bedding, towels, cooking utensils and flatware. With no vehicles to get around, temporary workers must also rely on farmers for transportation.

As a result, Leitz said they bought a few used school buses to move workers around. With that comes more cost.

According to state law, if a school bus isn’t being used to transport students, it must be repainted from the windows down and re-inspected. (That’s why many around Sodus and neighboring communities often see green and yellow buses on the roads.)

Having buses that size also means training. If a vehicle can carry more than 15 people in it, the person driving the bus needs a commercial driver’s license with a passenger designation. So Leitz has to have a couple bus drivers on staff.

Despite these unforeseen expenses that come with the program, Leitz said H-2A is picking up steam in southwest Michigan. He said he gets one or two calls a week from growers in the state — and sometimes in other parts of the country.

“I like everything but the $12.75 an hour,” Leitz said, referencing the adverse effect wage rate. “I have to compete with Canada and Mexico. They work here in a week and make as much as that in three months in Mexico. The amount of produce coming into the U.S. has tripled in the last 15 years and it’s put a lot of growers in the U.S. out of business.”

Rene Gelder and her family have already begun looking into the H-2A program. Her Benton Township farm, known as Ellis Family Farms, specializes mostly in fruit that includes everything from apples to raspberries.

As the farm’s owner, Gelder said the H-2A program is something everyone will have to go to eventually.

“The people we have are a bit older now,” Gelder said. “Who knows — in a few years they might have to retire.”

Not counting family members, Ellis Family Farms employs about five workers. When she and her husband took over her parents’ farm, Gelder discovered how hard it was to get workers.

They have no formal guest housing and there seems to be less people venturing to their grounds.

“You can’t point your finger at one thing, but when you’re a small operation, you’re on that line of what you can do yourself and how much you need help for,” she said.

About four years ago, the Gelders redid the orchard’s configuration to be in line with a prime harvest in the coming years. The problem with such a harvest means four or five workers couldn’t keep up with what needs to be picked.

From his experience at the MSU Extension, Longstroth said the program can be easier to maneuver for large farms because they have a bigger staff to complete all the H-2A paperwork.

“Berrien and Van Buren farmers will need thousands (of workers) if you have to pick the fruit quickly without damaging it,” Longstroth. “It’s a skill that’s hard to come by. But nobody wants to go out and work in 90-degree weather.”

Longstroth said some growers are turning to machines for picking on a mass scale. However, that has its own problems depending on the crop.

Vineyards can shake grapes off the vine to make wine, which saves time and money. Shaking apples off a tree can bruise fruit to the point that they are unsalable, Longstroth said.

Gelder plans to apply to the program this winter in preparation for the big harvest they are banking on.

A problem she foresees is the training. The Gelders trim their trees in a particular fashion that took time to perfect. Getting new workers from different countries each year could include valuable time spent training.