Killing Farm to Table?

Killing Farm to Table?

Growers React to Immigration Reform

By Becky Kalajian

A drive up to Leelanau County reveals a stark truth: Farmers are ripping up crops

that have become difficult to harvest profitably.

Northern Michigan growers point the finger at impending federal immigration

reform, saying the current and proposed initiatives are causing a labor shortage

while increasing labor costs.

In addition, proving legal status has shifted from the laborer to the grower, which

sucks time and profits away from operations, they contend.

The uncertain climate has sparked huge land auctions, a decline in growing labor-
intensive produce and thoughts of giving up farming entirely.

Though most farmers shied away from interviews, hoping to avoid unwanted

attention from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, three spoke

openly with the TCBN: Don Gregory, Cliff Boomer, and Farm to Freezer’s Mark Coe.

‘Not Like Picking at Grandpa’s Farm’

Labor-intensive Michigan apples, blueberries, asparagus and peaches may one day

be a fond memory, said Suttons Bay grower Don Gregory, whose 2,000 acres include

300 acres of apple trees … 60 percent less than what it was five years ago.

“Drive around Leelanau County and look around,” said Gregory, who is continuing

to tear up and not replace some of his apple orchards. “You’ll see a lot of apple

orchards being ripped up.”

The skills needed for hand-picked fruit, like apples, are highly specialized and are

“not at all like picking at grandfather’s farm,” he said.

“It’s hard work,” said Gregory, who has run his business since the early 1970s. “The

majority of apple farmers in Leelanau County have taken trees out of the ground,

but this year I’ve seen more come out than I’ve ever seen before.”

According to Gregory, a trifecta of sorts has descended on northern Michigan’s

growers: increased labor costs, decreased picking labor available and the fact that

Leelanau County remains one of the last stops on the migrant worker trail each fall.

“We’re not on the migrant freeway; they’re not just passing through here,” said

Gregory, who is transitioning the business to his daughter and son-in-law. “We’re

the last ones to get started and it’s miserable weather by the time we’re done.”

H-2A Not the Answer

Although Gregory had relied on roughly the same family-based labor pool year

to year, last fall he decided to use the unpopular – but mandatory – federal H-2A

temporary agricultural worker program.

According to the Michigan Farm Bureau website, Michigan farmers need about

49,000 seasonal workers annually. Their estimates show that less than 250 workers

are hired through the “complicated, expensive and unresponsive” program.

Gregory said he reluctantly used H-2A last fall to avoid what he said was “a big

issue”: not enough workers coming north. Using the program increased his labor

costs 20-30 percent from the year prior, he said.

“It’s expensive. It’s highly regulated. I have to advertise in five states and am

required to hire any domestic person who qualifies,” said Gregory, who ultimately

hired 30 at a cost of $1,600 per worker. “If I have too many people, I have to pay off

the H-2A workers and send them home.

“H-2A is not the answer.”

Tough Working Conditions

Gregory’s complaints are not unusual. Myriad grower websites lament the H-2A

program, which the U.S. Department of Labor’s site says was written to “protect

worker’s rights.”

Mark Coe, who worked at Lutz Farm in Kaleva for 10 years, says the seasonality and

difficulty of farming demands an able workforce, “no matter where they’re from.”

“We’re largely a culture that doesn’t want to do the hard, hot boring work,” said Coe,

who now works with Farm to Freezer of Northwest Michigan. “And here we have

skilled laborers with unmatched pruning and picking skills in tedious conditions.

Given the labor climate over the past 10 years, it feels as though the feds are waging

a war on the family farm.”

Before tighter immigration laws were enacted in 1996, guest workers would come

North and work for cash when the produce was ripe. A minority of farmers would

mistreat their workers with poor housing or underpayment, said Coe, but those

farmers never got the same crew back twice because of a sophisticated word-of-
mouth system.

“The bad farmers are a very small segment; the workers just won’t go back,” he said.

“The word gets out if you treat them well or not.”

Coe said that he has an answer to what ails the system and has been meeting with

state legislators to hear him out.

“Most of these people don’t want citizenship,” he said. “We need to set up a program

with a swipe card that identifies who these people are and include a touchback

provision, such as two or three months back in Mexico.”

Throwing in the Towel

While Coe joins the many voices chiming in on how to fix the system, Cliff Boomer is

throwing in the towel on a large part of his family’s farm.

In May, Boomer auctioned off 800 acres, a portion of his Douglas Valley Farm and

Winery in Manistee. The sale is expected to free up time and capital for planting

more grapes and building a winery there, Boomer said.

While the sale was a stressful event, Boomer said nothing unsettles him more than

immigration reform.

“I feel terrified, naked and afraid,” he sais. “[The pending legislation] will really kill

us.”

Although most Michigan farmers are clamoring for changes contrary to President

Obama’s proposal, Boomer wonders if his state’s voice is strong enough to be heard.

“Our legislators hear this stuff from us all of the time. Now we have to get other

legislators out of state to listen,” he said. “But Michigan is different because of the

sheer variety of crops we have. People in North Dakota don’t give a crap about what

we do; they only care about corn and beans.”

A Huge Burden

Like Gregory, Boomer has tried time and again to hire domestic workers, while

juggling the paperwork that comes along with federal regulations.

Ten years ago, he would spend four hours a week on administrative tasks. He now

has a person who works on these tasks 40 hours a week.

“It’s a huge burden for a small family farm,” he said.

With little hope that the farm will be taken over by one of his four sons, Boomer said

hiring any domestic worker has been an uphill battle.

“We hired local people and after a day of training, they’re gone,” he said. “It’s not just

the work, you need a particular skill set. So those people blew out fast.”

Although he doesn’t grow asparagus or strawberries, Boomer said that he knows

specialty crops such as these are already endangered in the area.

“It will go away; your Michigan strawberries won’t be on the shelf; instead they will

come from China,” he said. “And for what? You’ll never convince me that something

picked by Juan in Kaleva is not as good as something out of Shanghai.”

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