In 2012, a brutal frost destroyed much of Michigan’s apple and cherry harvests, forcing farmers to turn away the migrant fruit-pickers who had traveled up from Texas and Florida. Many of the workers never came back. The following year, a bumper crop of fruit wound up rotting on the trees, with some farmers reportedly having only 50% of the workers they needed. The labor crisis affected other crops, too: The state’s asparagus growers lost up to two million pounds of produce in 2013, valued at up to $3 million, due to labor shortages. “People were going out of production, because they didn’t have labor and couldn’t harvest their crops,” says Bob Boehm, who manages Great Lakes Ag Labor Services, a Michigan Farm Bureau service that helps farmers recruit more than 700 foreign guest workers a year. “The labor supply was already dying a slow death,” he says. “But from a slow boil, it turned into a red-hot problem.”
Immigration is the obvious answer to Michigan’s agricultural labor shortage, Boehm says, and the Michigan Farm Bureau has long advocated for a more streamlined system to let farmers access foreign labor. After the 2013 crisis, the bureau focused on helping farmers navigate a guest worker program that lets agricultural operations bring in foreign workers for seasonal work. After piloting with four apple farmers in 2014, the program now covers 21 farms, and has a long waiting list. “This keeps coming up when we’re talking to farmers,” he says. “What do they need? It’s labor, labor, labor.”
The reality is that we need access to immigration populations to meet the needs of the labor market.
The guest worker program is far from perfect, Boehm says, and involves a huge amount of red tape. Farmers are required to anticipate their labor needs about 75 days ahead of time, even specifying which fields the workers will be assigned to. Fluctuating weather patterns make this hard to do. The program is also centered on seasonal fruit-picking. “It doesn’t work with year-round agriculture jobs, from milking cows to being middle-managers,” Boehm says. “Operations are getting bigger and more sophisticated, and they need a level of talent beyond what this can provide.”
While the guest worker program is easing the pressure on Michigan’s farmers, more comprehensive reforms are required. Boehm says that fears about immigrants taking American jobs are overblown. “Come out here in the country, and you’ll see we don’t have people just standing around willing to do these jobs,” he says. “Demographically the reality is that we need access to immigration populations to meet the needs of the labor market here in the United States,” he says.
The current immigration deadlock is already taking a toll not just on farmers, but on the broader economy. “People realize that it’s important at the farm level, but they don’t think about what it means more broadly,” Boehm says. If peppers or asparagus or apples are left unharvested, then downstream trucking, packing, and processing operations also suffer. Michigan’s agricultural sector has a total economic impact of more than $101 billion once you factor in the other industries that depend on farmed produce, Boehm explains. “It all starts with getting that apple off that tree,” he says. “If we don’t have the harvesting crews in place, then none of that other economic activity can really happen.”