By Linda Lane
Often referred to as a “guest workers program,” migrant workers entering the United States with an H-2A visa help Michigan farmers contend with labor shortages encountered due to the short planting and harvesting seasons in agriculture.
That doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, or inexpensive.
Farmers may need seasonal workers for as short a period as 4-6 weeks to harvest the area’s fruit and vegetable crops. But it means workers are needed for long, tiring shifts.
Local young people can do some of the work. Considered a badge of strength and rite of passage for many local high school and college students, farms hire them to help with the de-tasseling of seed corn. But area fruit and vegetable crops such as asparagus and apples are harvested while students are in school. Other temporary and short-term jobs require more experience and knowledge of heavy machinery. Today’s tractor, for example, is a very sophisticated machine.
“With the technical, high-level and complex equipment being operated in the fields today, a high level of technical training is required to operate it, often with GPS or other operations,” explained Kevin Storm, general manager of a local farm. “Guest workers are extraordinarily expensive to employ, but without access to that labor source, we would be crippled in producing and harvesting our crops.”
With the issues of immigrants and “The Wall” forming a contentious national debate, local people are leery of being quoted by name or farm when discussing guest worker and visa issues.
Contrary to what many people believe, hiring the H-2A agricultural guest workers is more expensive than American workers and a complicated proposition as well. All of the local farms contacted (for this story) hire outside agencies in other states to guide them through the process. The number of H-2A visa workers which are brought in can range from year to year. One local farm may need 15-20 workers. A larger operation with multi-state sites might need 60-70 workers or as many as 100 guest workers for crops harvesting hand-picked fruits or vegetables.
“The domestic workforce which used to travel around to harvest crops is dwindling because the workers are aging and their kids aren’t willing to uproot their families to follow the agricultural jobs,” said a second-generation farmer.
“Who can blame them? It’s hard work, long hours and physically demanding jobs. Because we only hire the workers for five weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall, their families are constantly forced to move for the next ripe crop. We can’t find people who are willing to take those temporary and physically demanding jobs,” the farmer said. His family’s large southwest Michigan farm requires lots of workers to hand pick asparagus and apple crops. This will be its second season using the H-2A guest workers.
“Because it’s so expensive to hire the H-2A guest workers, we’re being forced to change our business practices. The fields with lower yields and trees which aren’t as productive are no longer being harvested. We’ve had to downsize our apple production by 25 percent because of these higher costs. And we may have to keep downsizing our farm crops because of it,” he added.
“Our 400 full-time employees are Americans, but to find people to do the temporary, 4-to-6-week jobs, those people don’t exist anymore,” another local farmer explained. “We’ll occasionally have some people apply but when they learn what the limitations and demands of the jobs are, they’re not interested. As the labor market has tightened, it’s been harder and harder to find workers for these jobs. When people hear we hire Mexican workers to help with our farms, the presumption is that we’re hiring cheap labor.
“But the opposite is true,” he said. “The requirements for H-2A workers, such as housing and transportation, add an additional cost of almost 50 percent in addition to their wages. But without those seasonal planting and harvesting employees, we don’t have a business,” another farm owner explained.
“When you know the equipment and how it works, it has a real impact on the products’ quality. If a potato is dropped over four inches it becomes bruised. We pay attention to making sure our potatoes are of the highest quality for our customers and consumers. So honestly, we’re fortunate that we have a visa work program in the U.S. that allows us to hire the guest workers. Because without that percentage of our labor force, our business would have difficulty raising our crops and producing food,” he said.
Farmers say they are lucky to have a lot of repeat workers because of the learning curve in the jobs. Once they learn the system, farmers really want them to return each year. From day one, they can jump right back in to the job.
“It’s been a good mutual arrangement. We go way beyond what is legally required for the workers, and they go way beyond what many people would do to get the job done. And that is crucial for harvesting quality fruits and vegetables products,” a farmer explained. “Without these workers and labor source, Americans would end up getting our foods from outside our country. It’s good for America and it’s good for individuals.”