Immigration changes could hurt local economy

TRAVERSE CITY Without migrant labor to help work the fields, area farmers say agriculture in its present form would

suffer, as well as other economic benefits derived from northern Michigans migrant laborers.

Though there is no official count, estimates number the amount of migrant workers somewhere around 6,000 people annually.

And when they come, they eat and shop, driving a micro-economy of their own. Places they shop and like visiting get instant referrals to friends and family; grocery stores that stock what they demand see increased business from spring planting to fall harvest.

Dave Hansen, who owns Hansen Foods in Suttons Bay, says he caters to his migrant clientele.

We have all of the Mexican foods they like, like nice tortillas, big cans of peppers, tamale flour, dried peppers, he said. They tell us what they want and then they spread the word.

Hansen estimates he loses about five percent of his business when October comes, but he is most concerned about his township should the migrants never return.

If they no longer came, the whole township would shut down, he said.

Even though local businesses do benefit economically from migrant workers, it is the farmers whose lifeline the migrants hold.

Gary Bardenhagen and his wife Christie have been farming berries and cherries for 30 years in Leelanau County. Years ago, they hired willing and able local teens to help with the planting and picking; now, local help is scarce and the Bardenhagens rely solely on migrant labor, says Gary.

If we didnt have (migrant labor), we wouldnt have crops, said Bardenhagen. Its pretty serious for us.

The couple needs approximately 110 people throughout the season to bring in the different crops: 50 for strawberry picking, about 40 for cherries, and another 20 or so for blackberries.

Fortunately, for about 20 years now they have been able to rely on a few basic families that come back year-to-year, Gary said.

But the added pressure being put on the United States southern border has created an atmosphere of fear, both among the workers and their northern bosses.

We are concerned that people wont want to come up if they are harassed, said Bardenhagen, whose farm is 184 acres, 80 of which he farms. But so far, weve been able to manage.

One thing that would be more difficult to manage, say local extension officials, is the prices of food should farmers ever be unable to harvest their crops.

Jim Bardenhagen, who happens to be Garys brother and also the Leelanau County MSU Extension director, says that the direct result of decreased farming here would be food prices out of this world or a tremendous amount of imports.

I dont think people have thought it through all the way, said Bardenhagen. I think they see [the migrants] as costing us money, but actually, it will cost them a lot more money if we dont have them.

Bardenhagen supports guest worker legislation that would work similar to a passport J-1 visa. The workers would come, receive transportation, work, and go back home after the season.

Although there is currently a permit for temporary workers called the H-2A Agricultural Worker Program, Bardenhagen says it is costly for the farmer and involves an arduous application process from both farmer and worker. Not to mention, it demands the farmer pay an average state wage, which is $9.43 and hour this year.

It is a nightmare, he said. Something has to change. BN