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Michigan’s specialty crops growers were short of labor for harvesting this year, and many fear the next two years will be worse.

These thoughts were expressed by growers who met for a “labor briefing” during Michigan Farm Bureau’s annual meeting in Grand Rapids in December.

They expressed little hope that immigration reform legislation will move through Congress soon, and, if it does, it may be some time before positive effects on the labor supply show up. Ryan Findley, the Farm Bureau’s national legislative counsel, said the Senate passed an immigration reform bill in June, but the House of Representatives balked and instead introduced five bills of narrow scope, which all seem to be in limbo.

Even more scary, some growers fear that the migrant stream that has fed seasonal laborers into Michigan for decades may be drying up. Not only do U.S. citizens not want to pick fruit, Hispanic migrants may be losing their taste for it as well.

“They’re not moving like they used to,” one grower observed.

“You’re all competing for a shrinking pool of labor,” said Ken Nye, horticulture specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau. He moderated the meeting, asking growers to tell their experiences, especially if they’ve tried new ways to find labor.

Michigan is at the north and terminal end of the migrant stream that has traditionally started in Texas and Florida and flowed up the East Coast. Migrants work in fruit and vegetable crops, moving north as the heat builds in the Southeast, following crops north.

Full season

Michigan has been able to offer a relatively full season of work, starting with asparagus in May and moving through specialty crop harvests ending with squash, cabbage, and apples around Halloween. This year, the most northerly Michigan growers, with apples near Traverse City, reported the largest labor shortages, up to 50 percent, while southwest Michigan was only mildly short, according to grower reports.

As usual, growers made attempts to find workers among the unemployed, working with Michigan Works to find labor. And as usual, recruits showed little aptitude for harvesting produce, and only a few stayed a week or more.

“Farm work picking produce is just too hard,” said John Bakker, with the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. But he thinks unemployed workers getting public benefits “shouldn’t have the option to quit.”

Several growers went south trying to entice workers to Michigan. In late September, the Michigan Farm Bureau sent out flyers to several other states on growers’ behalf.

Michigan growers are still reluctant to use H-2A workers because the higher wage requirements, plus other benefits these workers must get, could apply to other workers also. “You’ll need to pay H-2A wages to all, and provide housing and transportation, too,” observed Ben LaCrosse, an MFB board member and fruit grower from the Traverse City area.

Growers also would like the H-2A program better if they could hire collectively, working in groups to hire the workers and move them about as needed. Of the estimated 49,000 seasonal workers Michigan needed in 2013, fewer than 500 were H-2A workers, working on 21 farms.

All the growers reported paying higher wages to get the work done this year. “Everybody who came back this year got a raise,” one grower said. He suggested guaranteeing raises to workers who agree to come back to his farm the next year. •