Fred Leitz would like to hire American workers to handpick the tomatoes, cucumbers, berries, and apples that he grows on his 700-acre farm. But the fourth-generation Michigan farmer says that’s just not possible. “Every year we try, and every year we get a few. But not enough,” he says. That leaves him dependent on migrant labor to harvest the annual crop, valued at $6 million to $8 million. Each season, Leitz hires a few dozen, mostly Hispanic, laborers up from Florida and Texas, and 150 to 160 foreign-born laborers on the H2-A guest worker program. “Without the foreign workers, I wouldn’t have a fruit and vegetable business,” he says.
Leitz Farms, which he operates with his three brothers, has always relied on foreign-born workers. Until about nine or 10 years ago, his workforce was largely composed of domestic migrants. But in 2012, harsh weather froze Michigan’s apples and blueberries, leaving little for migrant workers to pick. The next year, many of the workers simply didn’t come back, and with nobody available to pick fruit and vegetables, a bumper harvest was left to rot in the fields. “We lost a couple million dollars of product,” Leitz says. “We had acres of tomatoes we never harvested. We had good crops and good markets, and had to leave it out in the field. It was like, wow, how much worse can it get?”
In 2014, Leitz made a last-ditch attempt to find more migrant workers, but his recruitment efforts came up short. Workers who had been coming to Michigan for decades were aging out, and, with the border tightening, “we weren’t getting a lot of new faces,” he says. “So going into 2015 we said, if we’re going to stay in business, we’re going to have to use the H2-A program.”
Under the H2-A program, employers are responsible for workers’ consular fees, travel costs, and accommodation — all told, an additional expense of about $2,500 per worker per season. Farmers can’t simply increase their prices to make up the difference, so the result is less money in Leitz’s pocket, and less money to reinvest in his business. “It’s really starting to cut into our profits,” he says. “My labor bill is up a half-million from what it was two years ago because of the increased costs.”
It’s nice to be able to get up in the morning and have people in place to do the work.
Still, Leitz says it’s worth the expense and the red tape: “It’s nice to be able to get up in the morning and have people in place to do the work.” But even with the H2-A program, there are not enough workers to go around. And clamping down on undocumented agricultural workers would place additional strain on the system, and potentially create a crisis. “I’d have to use more H-2A workers, and so would every farmer in the country. And then guess what? The system would fall apart,” he says. “It’s close to catastrophe right now, with not being able to keep up. It’d just collapse under its own weight.”
What’s needed, Leitz argues, is comprehensive immigration reform to provide a stable, streamlined guest-worker program and a path to legal status for undocumented workers who are already in the country. Foreign-born workers make up one-fifth of the agricultural workforce in Michigan’s Sixth Congressional District, where Leitz lives, and it’s important that farmers are able to continue tapping into that labor pool, even if some of the workers are undocumented, Leitz says. “A lot of them have been here 25 or 30 years, and now they’re working as managers,” he says. “They’ve been doing the work that American people don’t want to do.”
Trying to deport undocumented immigrants already working on Michigan farms would be disastrous, Leitz says. “They say every farm job is worth three or four jobs upstream or downstream,” he says. “The people that make my boxes, that do my trucking, my fuel guy, my fertilizer people – all these people are involved in servicing agriculture.” Getting rid of immigrant workers would mean many Americans’ jobs would be put at risk, along with Leitz’s own business, he warns. “It’d be devastating to Michigan, and to the fruit and vegetable industry.”