“Care for and harvesting of crops is a critical, labor-intensive aspect of our agriculture. Without adequate labor, asparagus, apples, or grapes might go unharvested; corn isn’t de-tasseled, and crops are left to rot in the field. The work is difficult and uncomfortable, the hours are long, the weather is a factor, and the jobs are seasonal.
Michigan workers don’t step up to take agricultural jobs, even with the state’s high rate of unemployment. Without workers, our area farmers and processors are at risk of closure or bankruptcy.”
~Suzanne Hoff, study chairperson
The above is from a very interesting Study of the Agricultural Migrant Worker Visa from the Leelanau County League of Women Voters. As the photo to the right demonstrates:
Seasonal workers have been essential to the operation of area farms since the transition from subsistence farming in the early 20th century. Agriculture was the principal livelihood for Michigan residents throughout the 1800s, but by the turn of the century, the Industrial Revolution was transforming agriculture from a small, self-sufficient family art to a large, mechanized, scientific industry. The tractor, the telephone, and the automobile revolutionized cultivation, communication, and transportation, and rural isolation was broken. Although farm conditions improved, people left the farms in droves and resettled in the cities. Rural depopulation became so severe during the 1920s that many farmers and growers had to import migrant labor.
The problem of finding sufficient labor continues today, and was the genesis of the new LWV study. The Grand Traverse Insider looks at its findings in a two-part feature: Skilled Labor Needed and Reality Check. A central finding is that:
Crops that must be harvested by hand, including apples, strawberries and asparagus all require a large labor pool for a very short time-span, and the study revealed that the domestic seasonal labor pool in the Leelanau area is inadequate to meet the need.
“Young workers are largely unskilled in agricultural work, and prefer tourism-related summer jobs to short-term harvest work,” the study noted. “The same is true of older workers who seek summer employment.”
The study concluded that migrant workers who follow the crops are essential to the Michigan farmer and to the production of a secure domestic food supply, noting that foods which are locally-grown and processed are less likely to expose consumers to the same dangers as do insufficiently-inspected imported food products, since at every step in the supply chain there is the danger of contamination and spoilage.
There’s a lot of interesting material here that questions the broad brush with which the issues around immigration are usually painted doesn’t capture. Michigan’s agricultural industry generates $7 billion for our economy. The incredible diversity of our 10 million acres of farmland on nearly 55,000 farms produces the 2nd largest number of crops of any state and requires workers who can work long hours over short periods of time. It’s not possible to harvest half of these crops mechanically and farmers who don’t harvest fail.
The study’s consensus is that the H-2A visa program which provides permits for temporary seasonal farm workers isn’t working in Michigan. It contends that:
…state legislators, with few exceptions, are “clueless about the problems facing the agricultural community.” The H-2A visa is considered by employers and workers alike to be too expensive, time-consuming and cumbersome; it fails to adequately protect U.S. workers and leaves foreign workers open to abuse and mistreatment.
Strong words, but a question that Michigan’s farmers can’t afford to have overlooked. You can also watch their presentation on the UpNorth Media Center.
Photo credit (top): Migrant father and son picking cherries, Berrien County, Mich. Vachon, John/Library of Congress