LANSING — Farmers in Michigan are becoming increasingly dependent on guest workers to fill a void left by migrant laborers who are opting out of coming to the state to harvest crops.
In addition, the children of migrant workers are receiving access to education that their parents didn’t have. As their level of education increases, the odds of them seeking work in the fields decreases dramatically.
“The number of people doing seasonal and migrant work is getting smaller and smaller,” said John Kran, associate national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “We’re dealing with an aging workforce, people who maybe in the past were willing to move around the country. Many of these people are developing roots and sticking around a particular area and looking for full-time work.”
As a solution to this anticipated ongoing reduction in the migrant workforce, farmers in Michigan and other parts of the country are relying on the federal H-2A visa program to bring in foreign workers known as guest workers. During the first three months of 2017, the Department of Labor approved applications to fill 69,272 farm jobs with workers on H-2A visas, an increase from 50,887 positions approved during same period a year ago.
In Michigan the number of H-2A applications has increased from 344 in 2012 to more than 4,000 in 2016, according to Kran.
“We’ll be closer to 5,000 this year and nationwide that number is expected to get closer to 200,000,” he said. “We have on average of 40,000 to 45,000 seasonal jobs that need to be filled and that’s not counting year-round positions in agriculture. Dairy and livestock production are also facing the same challenges in this area.”
To help farmers navigate through the H-2A process, the nonprofit Michigan Farm Bureau established Great Lakes Agricultural Labor Services LLC to provide resources such as access to attorneys, worker recruitment assistance, translation services and transportation coordination, said Bob Boehm, the program’s general manager. The entity is a for-profit affiliate of the Michigan Farm Bureau.
Boehm said Great Lakes Ag began in 2014 as a pilot project that had been requested by the Farm Bureau’s board of directors in response to the overall decline in the number of migrant farmworkers.
“In 2015, Great Lakes Ag officially became an affiliate company of the Farm Bureau and brought in about 400 workers,” Boehm said. “In 2016, we brought in 720 workers. This year we’re working with 35 farms and estimating bringing in about 1,300 for 2017.”
Farmers pay Great Lakes Ag $1,600 per worker recruited under the H-2A visa program.
Rob Collier, president and CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations, said it is not unusual for a nonprofit to establish a for-profit entity. He said he is not surprised that the Farm Bureau decided to spin off of Great Lakes Ag because of concerns about labor shortages.
“Nonprofits can set up for-profits, but it has to be related to their purpose,” Collier said. “It has to have some connection. The goal of the for-profit has to be related to the purpose of the nonprofit.”
Collier said the for-profit is a separate corporation and has to be treated that way.
To qualify to use the H-2A program, farmers must be able to demonstrate the lack of an available workforce. Once that determination has been made, farmers can apply to bring in people from other countries. Kran said the available jobs are posted with agencies who help approve and make arrangements for these workers to come into the U.S. for a contract period.
“We get migrant farm workers from quite a few states. The majority from within the United States come from Texas and Florida,” said Dale Freeman, director of the Office of Migrant Affairs within Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services. “Mexico is the source for workers under the H-2A.”
Freeman said it remains too early to tell how farmers may be affected by the anticipated reductions in the migrant workforce.
“In terms of the migrant services we provide, we have seen a fluctuation in the last four years that I’ve been working with Migrant Affairs,” he said. “We saw increases for services in 2015 and a slight drop in 2016. The number of farm workers we’ve been working with has gone down as mechanization and other solutions present themselves.”
Todd Miedema, who heads up marketing and sales for Miedema Produce Inc. in Hudsonville, has a different take on the reasons behind the migrant worker shortages.
In part, he said that when people in Mexico only hear about building walls and increased hostility toward immigrants — both legal and illegal — it creates a sense of unease about coming to work farm fields in the U.S. Instead, they stay away, he said.
While President Trump’s views on immigration have made news recently, the administration’s policies aren’t new, said Kran of the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“There’s always a level of uncertainty whenever there’s a change in the administration,” said Kran. “Based on some comments made by (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) Sonny Perdue, there’s definitely an opportunity for the potential to fix this moving forward. We need meaningful reform and a lot of other stakeholders have that same perspective.”
Miedema said his family’s business — which he describes as a grower-packer-shipper operation — employs between 125-150 migrant workers at its 700-acre Hudsonville facility and up to 250 at another location in Phoenix, Ariz.
“We primarily rely on workers who live quite close to us. We do have a fair amount of seasonal help,” Miedema said. “Typically we line up labor before they leave us for the season. If we like a particular family, we make sure they come back year after year and set that up with them before they head home.”
Miedema said his family has not used H-2A visas because of that advanced planning.
“For those people sitting back and waiting for workers to walk onto their farm, it’s not like it was two or three decades ago where this would happen,” Miedema said. “Anybody worth their salt is not going to put anything into a field without knowing that they’re going to get it out.”
Michigan’s agriculture industry has an impact of more than $100 billion on the state’s economy, making it the number two industry in Michigan and the second-most crop diverse state behind California. With numbers like this, Kran said continued decreases in an available farm workforce becomes a real concern.
“If you don’t have workers and you’re dealing with a perishable crop that won’t get picked, this could lead to lost market opportunities and long-term a farmer may decide not to grow that crop in Michigan,” he said.
“If you look at Michigan’s economy with the seasonal requirements in the agriculture and hospitality industry, it’s hard to fill those jobs. There’s the potential to grow the processing and ag sectors in Michigan. The stumbling block for people looking to expand will be whether they will have the labor.”