Michigan has more than 52,000 farmers sustaining its agricultural economy — but without immigrant labor, that could start to decline, says Michigan Farm Bureau president Carl Bednarski. In recent years, it’s gotten much harder for farmers to attract either local or migrant workers to bring in their harvests. “We’ve seen it change dramatically,” he says. “In the past we were able to use domestic workers to pick and harvest these crops, but it seems that as society has progressed, a lot of these jobs are going unfilled.” Now, Bednarski says, the lack of labor has left some farmers struggling to stay in business. “We’re having producers quitting, or retiring from farming,” he says. “They’re saying they don’t want to go through the process, and all the money involved in producing a crop, just to watch it rot in the fields.”
Carl Bednarski has worked in agriculture all his life, and his three sons now run the family’s 1600-acre farm, raising corn, beans, beets and wheat. Over his years in the ag business, Bednarski has learned that farming isn’t just good for the farmers themselves but for the state. In addition to directly contributing $13 billion to the state’s economy, Michigan farms create more than $101 billion through transportation, processing, and retail. That makes it all the more troubling, Bednarski says, to see farmers up and down the state struggling to find workers. Fruit and vegetable producers have it especially rough, but they’re not the only ones. “The dairies are having an awful time getting the labor force they need to operate,” he notes. “There are so many opportunities — it’s not just basic farms where guys are going out and picking apples or harvesting asparagus. We’re integrated, so we also need individuals to package those products, or to run packaging lines.”
Are we displacing domestic workers? That’s absolutely not the case, These are jobs that are being advertised, but they aren’t getting filled.
To meet that demand, the Michigan Farm Bureau recently developed a program to help farmers navigate the guest worker system, allowing farmers to recruit seasonal workers from places like Mexico and Jamaica. It involves plenty of red tape, and there are penalties for farmers who make mistakes, but the few hundred workers a year who come to Michigan through the program are a vital lifeline for the participating farmers. “It’s helped,” Bednarski says. “But we could still use tremendously more people than we’ve got.”
Even with the foreign workers, Bednarski says, there are plenty of jobs for any locals who want them. “Are we displacing domestic workers? That’s absolutely not the case,” he says. “These are jobs that are being advertised, but they aren’t getting filled.” And while the workers are in the United States, they’re buying from local businesses as well as helping the farms that employ them. “They’re going to the grocery store, and paying taxes, and contributing to the local economy just like a domestic worker would,” he says.
The economic boost provided by the guest worker program is a reminder, Bednarski says, of the agricultural sector’s enduring need for legal channels through which to recruit immigrant labor. Streamlining the guest worker program would be a good place to start, Bednarski says, but a more comprehensive overhaul would also be welcome. “We’d like to see reforms in the immigration policies we have,” he says. “If we put our minds together and take a look at the needs we have, and if we aren’t displacing domestic workers, then there’s a very good opportunity to utilize another workforce, and do it in a way we all benefit from.”