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Mich.’s farm labor shortage hits immigration politics

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Foreign agricultural workers pour Roma tomatoes into a box on a trailer in a field at Leitz Farms in Berrien County. Farmers in Michigan have turned to a federal program to ensure they have enough hands to harvest crops.

Sodus— Immigration politics are colliding with a growing shortage of farm workers in west Michigan, where farmers have turned to a federal visa program to bring workers from Mexico to harvest the state’s fruit and vegetable crops.

Michigan’s participation in the federal government’s farm labor visa program has grown nearly 14-fold in the past five years. Farmers say they desperately need the foreign workers to get their crops picked on time after years when vegetables were left to rot in fields.

“There’s a real shortage of agriculture harvesting labor in west Michigan,” said Fred Leitz, a fourth-generation tomato, cucumber and apple grower from Sodus in Berrien County. “You can’t go anywhere without farmers talking about how bad the situation is to get crops harvested.”

Farmers in west Michigan say the shortage of labor has resulted from fewer migrant workers coming north, a more secure southern border that has slowed the flow of Mexican immigrants and a Congress at odds over immigration reform.

“If the border’s tightened, we’ve got a lot less of the undocumented (workers) coming up here to work on the farms,” said Leitz, who has about 150 foreign workers with visas on his farm this year.

Both presidential candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, have signaled their willingness to expand the foreign worker visa program to help the agricultural industry. This comes even as Trump has promised to deport an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants if he is elected.

“We’re going to have a very strong border, but our businesses will not suffer,” Trump told The Detroit News during his Sept. 3 visit to Detroit. “We need workers, and we will have all of the workers we need.”

Lorella Praeli, national Latino vote director for the Clinton campaign, said in a statement: “Guest worker and farm labor policies will be addressed as a part of comprehensive immigration reform.”

But some Michigan farmers who depend on workers from Mexico and other countries say neither Clinton nor Trump has laid out a detailed plan for overhauling a visa program that they consider an expensive bureaucratic maze involving at least four government agencies.

“We need a workable guest worker program,” said Mike DeGrandchamp, co-owner of a family blueberry and cranberry farm near South Haven. “The H-2A program is cumbersome, expensive, unreliable.”

The Michigan Farm Bureau’s political action committee has supported every Republican presidential candidate going back to at least George H.W. Bush in 1988, but hasn’t yet endorsed this year.

Byron Center farmer Dave Miedema, whose family grows sweet corn, cabbage and squash on 1,500 acres in Kent County, said he supports Trump. But the third-generation vegetable farmer said the GOP nominee is trying to balance the needs of the agricultural industry with the conservative wing of his party that is clamoring for a crackdown on illegal immigration.

“I really feel that Trump does understand the problem, but he has to tread softly now because he doesn’t want to be thrown into the amnesty camp,” Miedema said.

Visa program grows

A generation of migrant workers who traveled from Southern and Western states from the 1970s through the early 2000s have become too old to do manual farm work, and their American-born children have pursued careers outside agriculture, farmers said.

“We’re proud to say over the years we’ve had kids who worked here who are now doctors, lawyers, teachers and all kinds of things,” said Leitz, president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Fred Leitz said he has about 150 foreign workers with visas on his farm this year.

The number of foreign workers cleared to travel to Michigan this year to work in fields, orchards and packing houses topped 3,800 — according to the Michigan Farm Bureau. In 2011, 276 workers entered the country legally to work on Michigan farms, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report.

“We’ve got jobs for workers that not a lot of people want to do and who’s doing it is mainly the Hispanic work force,” DeGrandchamp said.

Farmers also are seeing record harvests for certain crops this summer, adding pressures to pick, sort, pack and ship their products quickly.

“With a big crop like this, you need double the workers you’re going to have,” DeGrandchamp said. “There just isn’t that pool of workers willing to do this job.”

Trump and Clinton have vaguely similar policy stands on the foreign worker visa program, but otherwise have starkly different approaches to immigration.

The New York businessman has made sweeping promises to deport immigrants who entered the country illegally and committed crimes. He has said he would deport all 11 million illegal immigrants, but vowed any mass removal would be done “in a very humane fashion.”

Some of the 11 million illegal immigrants could get work visas if they returned to their home country and then re-entered the U.S. through legal channels, Trump told The Detroit News.

“Businesses will be helped by this, not hurt,” said Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida has reportedly hired foreign workers for years.

By contrast, Clinton supports providing a legal pathway to citizenship for individuals who entered the country illegally and now may have homes, children and established lives.

“Hillary will introduce comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to full and equal citizenship within her first 100 days in office that treats every person with dignity, fixes the family visa backlog, upholds the rule of law, protects our borders and national security and brings millions of hardworking people into the formal economy,” Praeli said in a statement.

Foreign agricultural workers sort cucumbers and pack them in boxes at Leitz Farms in Berrien County.

Consistent policy sought

Michigan’s labor shortage was most noticeable in 2013 when some migrant workers didn’t return to Michigan after an unusual 2012 early spring warming was followed by frosts that wiped out the tree fruit industry.

Recognizing the growing problem, the Michigan Farm Bureau started a company in 2014 to serve as the recruiting agent for foreign workers called Great Lakes Agricultural Labor Services LLC.

“We were seeing crops rotting in the field,” said Bob Boehm, a manager for Great Lakes Agricultural Labor Services. “They’d have to mow down a crop of asparagus because it was growing too fast.”

The program brought 407 workers to 10 farms last summer and 730 workers to 22 farms this year, Boehm said. Farmers pay their foreign workers a $12.02 minimum hourly wage, though some make more money if they’re more productive, he said.

On northern Kent County’s “fruit ridge,” where the moisture-holding soil and climate are ideal for growing tree fruit, fifth-generation farmer Mark Youngquist bulldozed rows of apples in 2013 “to get it down to what we could manage with less quality help and less quantity of help.”

In 2014, Youngquist Orchards near Kent City became one of the first farms in the state to get foreign workers through Great Lakes Agricultural Labor Services. Youngquist’s farm has 28 workers this fall from Mexico helping pick its apples through the visa program, which requires American farmers to pay the workers’ bus fare, food and lodging expenses.

“It’s a definite skill to pick an apple,” he said. “It’s not just grabbing an apple and throwing it in a bag.”

Youngquist said the next president needs to tread carefully with immigration policy so it doesn’t disrupt the farm workforce.

“Whatever the policy, if it could just be consistent every time the White House changes hands, we’ll work with whatever — just tell us the rules and we’ll follow them,” he said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com