Fred Leitz comes to the presidency of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) at an exciting time.
Agricultural interests appear to see the same messages on the wall and have adjusted their approach to reflect the realities of the times.
Comprehensive immigration reform does not appear to be in the Congressional cards, and there is vitriolic disagreement between Congress and the Obama Administration over what to do about workers who are in this country without proper documentation.
“We can’t have E-verify without adjusting the status of the people who are here and having a visa program that assures access to a labor supply in the future,” Leitz said. “We have told Congress that repeatedly.”
While agricultural employers would like to see the heat taken off their workers who fear Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they see the pool of Mexican workers in the United States getting smaller, and they need a guest worker program that brings them into the country legally.
“Our biggest goal now is to make H-2A workable. We need a stable, adequate, and predictable supply of agricultural labor capable of participating legally in the U.S. workforce,” Leitz said, quoting from language developed by the U.S Apple Association.
Leitz spoke in a phone interview with Good Fruit Grower from Washington, D.C., where his organization, NCAE, and the U.S. Apple Association were taking their messages to Congress, again. The clarity of his message was strengthened recently.
On March 10, Leitz attended the annual meeting of the Michigan Processing Apple Growers Association. As a grower of 70 acres of apples, some of his fruit goes into the processing market. At the meeting, he heard Dan Fazio from the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) speak and learned more about the Michigan Farm Bureau’s plan to mesh with that organization to help growers bring H-2A workers in greater numbers.
“I signed up the next week,” he said. “I had never used H-2A before. I like Farm Bureau’s approach, because of all the hand-holding.”
The Farm Bureau program, which is aligned with the WAFLA program in Washington State (that program is expanding into Oregon and California), will take care of all the details of finding workers, getting them visas, arranging their transportation, and delivering them to growers who have been informed of their responsibilities and have housing and local transportation for them.
“I also like that they will be recruiting in Mexico, going right out into farm fields and recruiting them,” Leitz said.
He has seen the studies showing the decline in the pool of farm workers in Mexico, but he sees potential for U.S. growers and Mexican growers to share the same workers.
Leitz operates Leitz Farms in Sodus, Michigan, with three brothers and some of their children. They need 225 to 250 seasonal workers for four months. Workers move through a sequence of crops—cucumbers, cantaloupes, blueberries, tomatoes—and finish with the apple harvest in September and October.
During those months, there’s not much farm work in Mexico, and growers in the U.S. offer an opportunity for workers to increase their annual incomes.
Leitz came on the NCAE board in 2005, when growers’ problems hiring seasonal labor were just starting to increase.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States government increased its efforts to secure the borders and remove undocumented people inside the country.
It was not clear at first that other forces were at work reducing the pool of foreign farm workers. Growers were increasing wages, but still coming up short of workers.
In 2012, when there was almost no fruit crop in Michigan, Leitz saw his first worker shortage, but thought the lack of fruit kept migrants away, even though he needed them for his vegetables. In 2013, when he again was short of workers, he again blamed the no-fruit year for disrupting the normal migrant labor flow. But last year, he began to see a different picture.
There were fewer workers to be had.
Leitz Farms has had to let produce go unpicked; they have cut acreage of tomatoes to match their labor supply, switching some land over to commodity crops like corn and soybeans.
Farm wages at Leitz Farms have gone up twice in the last two years as they have tried to attract and incentivize workers. “Given where wages are now, using H-2A workers won’t be that big of an increase,” Leitz said.
Over the last 20 years, Mexico has made a transition from a relatively closed economy to one of the most open countries in the world. It has implemented domestic measures to deregulate business activity and encourage private investment.
Mexico has signed a dozen international free trade agreements to promote industrial competitiveness and increase exports.
In this transition, Mexican workers have gained access to higher paying jobs outside of agriculture.
One other mission Leitz and other farm organizations want to accomplish is to get the USDA more active in the farm labor arena.
H-2A has fallen under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security, with its security focus, and the Department of Labor, with its mission to protect domestic workers’ jobs.
“It should be USDA’s role to stand up for farmers,” Leitz said. “Originally, USDA and the Department of Labor were supposed to work together. USDA was supposed to co-lead in getting a workable visa program for guest workers, and they need to get up to speed on it. They have an unfilled mandate to do that.”
Leitz isn’t sure what the long-term future is for U.S. farm labor. There may not be enough farm workers in Mexico. H-2A might need to be extended to countries further away. Perhaps the nature of farm work has to change, through mechanization, to create better, though fewer, jobs that need to be filled.
Leitz is president of NCAE for two years, and helping to fix H-2A during the term of his leadership would be a significant benefit to specialty crop agriculture. He’s been working on the problem for more than a decade. •