The supply of seasonal labor to harvest fruit grown by United States growers is dwindling year by year, but there’s a plan in place to gradually replace them.
No, the plan doesn’t rely on Congress passing immigration reform or creating a rational guest worker program. It’s not a
government plan; it’s a private plan designed to make the government’s existing guest worker program—H-2A—finally work for growers.
“Our goal is to have 50,000 H-2A workers on the West Coast three years from now,” Dan Fazio told Michigan apple growers.
Fazio was in Michigan to talk about WAFLA—the Washington Farm Labor Association—which was born in Washington State in 2007 and has grown rapidly. It placed 7,500 H-2A workers in Washington last year—and has a goal of placing 10,000 there this year.
While WAFLA started as a Washington Farm Bureau program, it is now a stand-alone organization that is expanding to offer services to fruit growers in Oregon and California and has provided a model for a new Michigan organization called the Great Lakes Ag Labor Services LLC (GLALS). The Michigan group has partnered with Fazio’s program.
Fazio came to Michigan in March to speak at the annual meeting of the Michigan Processing Apple Growers Association. That group is an affiliate of Michigan Farm Bureau.
Two years ago, it asked its parent organization to create a study committee, and that committee recommended that Farm Bureau help its specialty crop grower members deal with the growing shortage of farm labor.
Last year, Farm Bureau operated what it called “a pilot H-2A program” to see if they could bridge the gap between growers and the frustratingly cumbersome and bureaucratic H-2A program.
The result was a decision to create Great Lakes Ag Labor Services, hire Katie Rasch to run it, and extend the reach beyond apples to serve growers of other Michigan crops, especially asparagus and summer vegetables. Now, by working with Fazio’s WAFLA, the network has gotten larger.
The United States border with Mexico is no longer easy to cross, said Fazio.
That is creating a growing shortage of seasonal labor, the kind fruit growers have historically used in large numbers during the harvest season. Last year, that shortage meant growers could only find 85 percent of the workers they needed, he said.
Where would-be workers once crossed the border fairly freely, border stiffening after 9/11 has kept Mexicans from moving north, and it has created a trap for those already in the United States illegally. Since they can’t move freely back and forth, they have to choose which side to stay on.
Those who stay in the U.S. face a conundrum: They can’t make a living doing seasonal work.
It was that ability to move back and forth across a porous border that made the life of a Mexican migrant farm worker possible, Fazio said. They were able to turn seasonal income at American wages into year-round living in Mexico for themselves and their families because of the lower cost of living in Mexico and the value of the American dollar there.
“Five months’ income doing farm work in the United States is five years of income working in Mexico,” Fazio said.
But, trapped in the United States, seasonal work at farm wages cannot support them for the year. “They can’t live a year here off that money,” Fazio said. “They had to go back and forth.”
So they are leaving agriculture and its seasonal work for full-time jobs if they can find them. As the economy continues to improve, fruit growers lose more and more workers. “They’re leaving ag,” he said.
President Barack Obama used executive powers last year to reduce the pressure to deport undocumented workers, but “the President’s plan won’t help agriculture,” Fazio said. Those workers may feel less stress, but they are leaving agriculture looking for full-time work.
Make H-2A work
Fazio’s plan: Make H-2A work for growers by helping them deal with the process. Growers will still have to pay the costs—of transportation, housing, and paying higher wages—but WAFLA and GLALS will find the workers in Mexico, arrange to get them visas and transportation to growers’ farms and orchards, and advertise aggressively to find domestic workers.
That is required of growers who must demonstrate the unavailability of domestic labor before they can hire workers from other countries under the H-2A program.
They will help growers meet other provisions of the law—like making sure they provide quality housing and transportation so workers can shop for groceries.
Growers who know workers they’d like to hire can put them on a “preferred” list.
Growers who hire H-2A workers must also pay other employees the same wage for the same job, but different rules apply about the benefits they are entitled to.
Growers will have to decide whether to provide them with health care under provisions of the Affordable Care Act. “Treat them like regular workers,” Fazio said. Affordable Care Act rules governing what employers must provide apply to H-2A workers as well. (See “Who needs health coverage?”)
One of the most important services WAFLA and GLALS will provide is end-to-end contracts. As ordinary migrant laborers, workers could put together their own annual work program moving farm to farm, crop to crop.
But H-2A workers must have contracts with individual growers covering distinct periods of time and locations of work.
That contract feature is still in place, but WAFLA and GLALS, working with multiple crops and multiple growers, can keep H-2A employees working and moving.
Get fruit picked
Growers may not be too happy with the price they have to pay for H-2A labor, Fazio said, but the advantages are there. “You get better productivity and higher quality fruit because it is picked on time,” he said. “Workers arrive when you need them, work for you, and want to come back every year.”
Not only is grower interest in H-2A increasing, but government resistance is melting, Fazio said. While H-2A was established by the government, many thought the bureaucrats showed very little interest in making it work. Now it is more evident that the farm labor shortage is real and that domestic workers have no interest in doing farm work.
WAFLA works with CSI Labor Services, “the best agent in Mexico,” according to Fazio. As experience builds, growers will be able to get the workers they prefer, coming back every year, and find more that are qualified to do the jobs they need done.
Fazio thinks H-2A can be made to work. The labor shortage is growing, worldwide, and if American growers can’t find suitable workers, they’ll have to make dramatic changes in how they do business.
Katie Rasch was hired to work with GLALS after working as part of the pilot program last year. Age 25, fluent in Spanish, and the daughter of grower Joe Rasch of Sparta, she was the farm’s choice to work with Michigan Farm Bureau on the pilot program last year.
The Rasches, like many in Michigan, lost most of their fruit crop to frosts in 2012. With no work, workers left for other places, and many did not come back in 2013. That was the shock that sent the Rasches to the pilot program.
Katie was the logical choice to work with the program. As a youngster, she learned to speak Spanish, which she majored in at Grand Valley State University. She also traveled for two years to Chile and other parts of Latin America.
Back on the farm, she became the translator and took charge of quality control and labor management, drove the van transporting workers, and did payroll as well.
The pilot H-2A program worked, she said. While the farm had to pay more for labor, it was easier to manage the group of 24 H-2A workers than the other 40 individuals that arrived at varying times and required individual paperwork. For the first time, the farm had workers under contract and developed a structured training program to deal with them.
So, this year, Rasch will have more farms to work with as an employee of Great Lakes Ag Labor Services. Officially, she is an employee of Michigan Farm Bureau, of which GLALS is an affiliate.
This is not the first time Michigan Farm Bureau has stepped out to parent a fledgling organization. The Michigan Processing Apple Growers Association began in the same manner. •
After growing up on a Michigan dairy farm, Richard Lehnert began writing about farming in 1962, while still a junior studying journalism at Michigan State University. He worked at newspapers for a year before joining the staff of Michigan Farmer, where he spent 26 years, the last 15 as chief editor. He joined the staff of Good Fruit Grower in 2010.
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