In the 19th century, Steve Bardenhagen’s great-great-grandfather emigrated from Germany, fought in the Civil War, and was rewarded with the land in northern Michigan that his descendants still farm today. Bardenhagen Berries is now a thriving 180-acre cherry and strawberry farm, with revenues of around $400,000 a year—but Bardenhagen, who grew up on the farm he now owns and runs, says its continuing success is heavily dependent on migrant workers, many of them Mexican immigrants, who come each year for the harvest season.
Around two to three dozen workers come up from Texas each year in May, living on Bardenhagen’s farm in specially built apartments, and harvesting fruit from June to August, as well as weeding, planting, and picking stones. “We’ve had the same group of people for about 20 years,” Bardenhagen says. “They’re like family.” The workers fill a vital need, he adds, because locals aren’t interested in temporary jobs, or in the hard, physical labor that it takes to bring in the harvest. “We put an ad in the paper last year looking for help, and we didn’t get a single reply,” Bardenhagen says. “We haven’t had anyone work in our harvest that’s been a local as far back as I can remember.”
Most of the migrant workers are permanent residents or naturalized citizens, and Bardenhagen does his best to ensure that all have legal authorization to work. “Generally the kids will be U.S. citizens who were born here, and the older folks came into the United States back when we had an immigration policy that was more flexible.” But the tightening of immigration laws cut off the supply of new workers, Bardenhagen says, and the migrants who tend his fields are now growing older. “Our current crew is becoming more Americanized every year, which is a good thing—these people have come in at the bottom level, and now they’re getting their feet under them,” he says. “But it means the kids, especially, are going off and doing other things, getting permanent jobs. Every year we see the kids get older, and the ones who turn 18 disappear and we never see them again.”
The shortage of migrant workers is starting to become a problem: this year, for the first time, one of the 12 apartments in Bardenhagen’s labor camp is standing empty. “It’d be good to have an influx of new faces,” he says. “I can remember when I first took over the farm, and there would be trucks coming by with people looking for work—that’s ended, you don’t see that any more.” Bardenhagen is considering using temporary visas to bring in foreign workers to fill vacancies, but he worries about the cost and complexity of doing so, and fears the temporary employees won’t be as skilled as workers with whom he’s built longstanding relationships.
I can remember when I first took over the farm, and there would be trucks coming by with people looking for work—that’s ended, you don’t see that any more.
What is needed, Bardenhagen says, is a simpler program that would let workers handle their own applications, rather than putting the responsibility in the hands of farm operators. “I strongly believe we should have some sort of system that will allow people to come in and work legally,” he says. “Some sort of guest-worker program would make the most sense, so they could come in and work for a period, then return to Mexico.” It would also make sense to give undocumented workers a path to legal status, Bardenhagen says. “I feel real bad for the folks who are caught up in that—they can never fix that one mistake they made, even though they’re now law-abiding people who are contributing to our economy,” he says.
Without some kind of reform, Bardenhagen says, he won’t be able to sustain the farming methods his family has used for generations. As the supply of migrant labor dries up, Bardenhagen might have to switch to automated harvesting methods. Still, he says, fresh markets require handpicked produce, while machinery bruises the fruit, reducing its value and leaving it fit only for processing into jelly or pie-filling. “The processing market hasn’t been doing real well lately,” Bardenhagen notes. “It’s just hard to make money when you can’t get paid much for the final product.” Another option would be to replant his orchards with less profitable but less labor-intensive crops such as grains or hay. “Without these workers, I’d have to make some significant changes,” he says.