HOLLAND — A farmworker shortage and low commodity prices are forcing West Michigan blueberries farmers to alter how they approach their harvests.
That’s why some farmers have turned to bringing in temporary or seasonal workers from countries such as Mexico through the H2-A visa program. However, the H2-A program often results in higher labor costs, since farmers pay workers’ visa fees, transportation expenses, housing and an hourly wage of $13.06 in Michigan, according to Holland blueberry grower Tom Parker.
When the whole package is added up, farmers are paying roughly $20 to $21 an hour per worker, which Parker calls “ridiculous.”
“It’s OK if you need 20 workers, but to pay a hundred H2-A workers means you have to offer free room and board, plus you have to have certain criteria met in your housing,” said Parker, farm operations manager for the Holland-based Bowerman Blueberries Ltd. “The costs are crazy.”
Parker said the steep prices are why he’s hiring roughly 100 domestic hand pickers on his 100- acre farm to finish out the harvest, which started earlier this month. Bowerman Blueberries pays wages beginning at $9.25 an hour for less experienced workers and $16 an hour for “faster pickers,” Parker said.
Despite the added labor costs for the hand pickers, the company remains in a better position than if it had to rely on workers in the H2-A program, he said, noting he’s “not a big proponent” of the visa system.
“You still have to pay (an H2-A) worker if he’s slow,” Parker told MiBiz. “Someone may argue and say you can get rid of him and get a new one, but it takes a good three to four weeks to get a new replacement. By then, you’re halfway done with (the season).”
Despite concerns from farmers like Parker regarding the H2-A program, the Lansing based Michigan Farm Bureau reports that more Michigan farmers are using visas as a result of the farmworker shortage.
Statewide, farmers submitted 150 H2-A visa applications “at the moment, and we are only half way through the year,” said Kevin Robson, horticulture specialist for the Lansing-based Michigan Farm Bureau. That’s an increase from 128 H2-A applications for all of 2017.
According to Robson, blueberry farmers’ options for hiring are limited, resulting in the increased use of the visas.
“There’s not the domestic worker market that there used to be,” said Robson, who also is the executive director of the Michigan Blueberry Commission. “In 2012, we had a frost freeze where we virtually had no fruit anywhere across the state. And after that happened, there were a lot of workers that were turned away simply because the farmers didn’t have work. … We’ve had a hard time recovering from that. Those domestic workers went elsewhere to find work, and worked in other farms in other states and never came back to Michigan.”
With Michigan’s blueberry industry valued at $80 million to $100 million, farmers have had to get creative and embrace the visa program in recent years to have successful harvests.
The federal H-2A functions as a contract, which is predetermined before the worker steps foot on the farm, Robson said. Even though H2-A does not offer a “perfect solution, if you think about it, it’s fair,” Robson said.
“That’s fair for … these professionals that are out there harvesting the crop (and) leaving their families. They’re leaving their homes. They’re traveling thousands of miles from home,” he said. “It’s only right that we make sure that their quality of living is just as good and is at as high of a level as ours is. The overwhelming majority of growers understand that and don’t see that as an issue.”
While Parker understands why farmers choose H2-A as a hiring mechanism, he can’t justify the additional costs for his farm.
“That’s not to say I don’t have pickers making $16 to $18 an hour. We do, but they are able to pick fast enough” to justify paying them a higher wage, he said. “To automatically give people basically $14 an hour and they can only pick (at a rate of someone making) $9 to $12 an hour, you’re giving away money at that point.”
Similarly, Robson said the “H2-A is not a cheap program,” but alternatives remain limited for farmers.
“H-2A is not a solution to our labor shortage problem in the United States; it’s simply a Band- Aid,” Robson added. “Farmers are going to H-2A not because they want to or because they think H-2A’s a great program. It’s because they literally have no other choice to get a reliable, legal, stable workforce.”
WORKERS IN DEMAND
The U.S. agricultural industry continues to struggle through highly volatile times. In recent weeks, for example, California farmers reportedly have been letting crops rot in their fields because of a lack of migrant workers, particularly as problems persist at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a forecast in February projecting that net farm income will drop to $59.5 billion this year, its lowest point since 2006 and a decline of more than half since peaking in 2013.
The combination of labor struggles and plummeting farm income has Parker and others calling for reforms.
“With all of the fruit being planted and the low prices and the high wages — it just doesn’t make sense to me,” Parker said. “If America doesn’t watch out, there won’t be any fruit (and other crops) left, and I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where you depend on other countries.”
According to USDA Trade Analyst Bryce Cooke, the U.S. agricultural industry had a trade surplus of $11.5 billion through the first seven months of the 2018 fiscal year, down from last year’s surplus as more imports have come into the market.
“We don’t take care of our farmers here in America. We import more than we need to,” Parker said. “We should take care of America first, and import what America can’t supply.”