With fewer farmhands, Michigan farmers more willing to buy worker visas

tim tubbs

Fruit and vegetable grower Tim Tubbs of migrant farm workers: “They are deathly afraid to travel.” (Courtesy photo)

About 80 miles northwest of Grand Rapids, fruit and vegetable grower Tim Tubbs was on edge this spring as harvest time approached for the asparagus crop.

Most years, Tubbs, who works the 900-acre farm with his father, Fred, attracts at least a dozen more workers than are needed. They provide skilled hand labor to harvest the cherries, asparagus, peaches and apples; work that demands at least a couple dozen seasonal workers.  

This year, that’s exactly what Tubbs got: 24. “We just got by,” he said.

Tubbs said undocumented workers, many from Mexico, were too worried about strict border enforcement to risk a farm job in Michigan. “They are deathly afraid to even travel,” he said. “It's a lot to do with immigration.”

As Bridge first chronicled in February, farmers across Michigan feared that President Trump’s aggressive crackdown on illegal immigration would mean not enough hands for the harvest when the weather warmed.

Tubbs and other farmers now say they are resigned to paying extra to bring workers to the U.S. legally. Next year, Tubbs said, he may use a federal guest worker program that  is gaining traction among Michigan farmers seeking assurance their workforce will show up.

“I think we are going to be concerned that we will get our crop harvested,” he said. “I think that we are going to have to do it.”

So far this year, nearly 6,000 agricultural visas have been approved for Michigan farmers – more than quadruple the number approved in 2014, and more than 10 times the 500 visas approved in  2013.

Farmers turning to visas

The number of H-2A guest agricultural workers approved in Michigan has risen more than 10-fold since 2013:

  • 2008: 442
  • 2009: 493
  • 2010: 289
  • 2011: 251
  • 2012: 344
  • 2013: 500
  • 2014: 1,302
  • 2015: 2,301
  • 2016: 4,044
  • 2017: 5,967 (through July 1)

Source: Michigan Farm Bureau

Known as H-2A, the program brings workers – predominantly from Mexico – to work on U.S. farms for no more than a year. After that, they must return to their home country. Farmers pay their visa fees and transportation expenses both ways. They also provide housing and agree to pay a specified wage. In Michigan, it's set at $12.75 an hour for 2017. When all expenses are figured in, farmers estimate workers cost about $17 an hour.

But a government farm official said the extra cost and bureaucracy of securing an H-2A seem to be a worthwhile tradeoff for farmers, when they consider the alternative.

“You ask a lot of the growers why they are switching to H-2A. They won't say I'm switching because it is easy to work with. They won’t say because it’s cheap,” said Kevin Robson, a horticulturist with the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“Now, their biggest worry is getting (crops) off the trees.”

kevin robson

Michigan Farm Bureau horticulturist Kevin Robson: Farmers’ biggest concern is reliable work force. (Courtesy photo)

Robson said he talked to one apple grower who said he had no problem growing perfect fruit. But, the grower told him, “If I can't get it harvested, it isn't worth anything.'”

Businesses in other seasonal industries in the state are also scrambling to find workers.

Some employers on Mackinac Island say they are struggling to fill hospitality jobs that open during the summer tourist season. They rely on a similar program – H-2B – that provides foreign workers in the seafood, tourism, landscaping and other seasonal industries. Under pressure from industry groups, the Trump administration last week added another 15,000 H-2B visas nationally for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Mackinac Island Carriage Tours applied for about 20 H-2B slots as part of its seasonal workforce of 350. But the carriage company never got them – because the program reached its cap before the positions could be authorized.

“It’s a political issue and it shouldn’t be. It’s more of a small-business issue,” Brad Chambers, the company’s treasurer, told the Detroit Free Press in June.

New cost of farming  

According to a 2014 report by the American Farm Bureau Federation, undocumented workers comprise fully half of hired U.S. farm workers. While there is no calculation specific to Michigan, the state's agricultural seasonal workforce numbers about 45,000.

No other industry has such a high share of undocumented workers.

In a state that ranks at or near the top in the nation in cherry and blueberry production – and where fruit and vegetables account for a $1.4 billion economic impact – being unable to fill farm jobs during the harvest is no small matter.

Berrien County grower Fred Leitz turned to the H-2A program a couple years ago, and said he now fills most of his work force of 225 with guest workers. With 700 acres of cucumbers, cantaloupe, tomatoes, apples and blueberries on his farm in the southwest corner of Michigan, Leitz has plenty at stake every harvest season.

fred leitz

Berrien County grower Fred Leitz now uses a guest worker visa  program for most of his work force. (Courtesy photo)

“I know they are legal,” Leitz said of his H-2A workers. “If ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) comes in at least I know I still have workers.”

Thus far, Leitz said: “We are doing okay. We have enough workers.”

While mass arrests of migrant farm workers might not be common, that specter is every grower's nightmare: Their work force could disappear overnight.

In February, ICE agents in Oregon stopped two buses transporting Latino farm workers and detained 11 men who were then subject to deportation proceedings. The men were on their way to work harvesting flowers when they were apprehended.

In April, ICE conducted an immigration raid at a Pennsylvania mushroom farm that resulted in the arrest of 12 immigrant workers. According to newspaper accounts, they were booked and put in custody to face deportation.

Michigan growers say it's impossible to know for certain if workers are undocumented, since employers are required by law to accept a variety of ID’s for employment, such as a Social Security card, birth certificate and driver's license. They can easily be forged.

By law, farmers who employ H-2A workers are required to advertise their job openings in local newspapers to assure that Americans get first crack at the jobs. But they say few locals bother to show up.

“We have (Americans) that want to drive tractors,” Leitz told Bridge in February. “But nobody wants to harvest. Working in fields with hot or cold weather is not for everybody.”

Selling farmers on visas

In 2014, the Michigan Farm Bureau spun off a for-profit company called Great Lakes Ag Labor Services to help farmers navigate the complex H-2A process. It worked with four farms the first year, 10 in 2015, 21 in 2016 and some three dozen this year. It helped import 705 guest workers in 2016 and more than 1,200 this year.

“We’ve been doubling every year,” said Eligio Larraga, sales and field representative for Great Lakes. “When growers call us or come to us, it’s because they are struggling to find workers.”

Larraga meets with interested growers, explains how the program works and helps with everything from its maze of paperwork to how to advertise job openings. While H-2A workers are more expensive than undocumented migrant workers, Larraga said they give growers something hard to put a price on: peace of mind.

“If you use this program there is not going to be such a thing as a shortage of workers. There are literally thousands of workers in Mexico that would like the opportunity to (legally) work in the United States.

“They can make enough money to take care of their family for an entire year. They can make in a day what they make in a week there,” Larraga said.

But as long as undocumented labor continues to be a large part of Michigan’s farm work force, Larraga conceded the H-2A program alone will not solve the farm shortage.

“It’s not the solution. But it’s the only legal program out there for workers.”

In the meantime, Larraga said he’s not entirely surprised that some migrant workers are still coming to Michigan despite the shadow of deportation.

“If I was undocumented, I would be concerned. The fear is still there. But the workers don’t know anything else. They still have to work. They have to make money. They have to feed their family.”

A few months back, blueberry grower Bill Fritz worried he might lack the workers to pick his crops.

He's not worried now.

“Everything is going good,” said Fritz, who farms 350 acres of blueberries in Allegan and Van Buren counties. At peak harvest time, he employs some 700 migrant workers – and he was expecting more earlier this month as the New Jersey blueberry crop wound down.

“Everyone is here,” he told Bridge. “They all showed up.”

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William C. Plumpe
Tue, 07/25/2017 - 9:30am

It appears that farmers in rural areas---who are more likely to be Trump voters--- are some
of the people who were most likely to bring in undocumented workers. Ironic that they voted for Trump when he supports stricter rules making seasonal workers who are most often from Mexico more expensive to get and therefore costs to the farmers go up based upon what they want Trump to do. That either is unwise, very dedicated or both. Let's see if Trump supporters still go for his agenda when it starts hurting them in the pocketbook.
That's a real test of loyalty.

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 1:58pm

Its seems you're attacking Trump supporters because the flow of illegal aliens has significantly decline since Trump was elected, without a wall.
Does that mean that you believe it is better for America to violate the laws as long as it is putting more money in someone's pocket at the expense of those illegals?

It seems the the Visa system is working for both employees and employers.
I wonder if this will encourage increased modernization of farming, improvements in productivity, recruiting of Americans currently unable to get jobs due to lack of skills or a proven work history, and a more stable workforce for farmers.

I am surprise you are so down on the legal approach. I guess you got comfortable with the Hillary and Obama approach of ignoring laws. Trump seems to be bring in a more law abiding environment and that is breaking old habits, which can be uncomfortable for many.

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 9:58pm

In 1960s Edward R Morrow presented documentary
Harvest of Shame. This use of migrant labor some undocumented some American poor has been around for a long time. Lot of people have turned a blind eye because money was made. It's on Youtube

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 10:06am

Surprise, surprise. Enforce the law and all of a sudden, employers start obeying the law. Anyone caught with an illegal (oh, I'm sorry, undocumented) immigrant working for them should be arrested also. Do the process correctly and there is no problem getting legal workers. So the workers have to be paid a little more, or the paperwork costs now have to be paid. That is the price we should be willing to pay to live in a lawful society. Thank you, President Trump.

Andy K
Sat, 07/29/2017 - 1:53am

You do realize that the cost is passed on to you, the consumer, on your grocery bill, do you not?

Steve Williams
Tue, 07/25/2017 - 10:39am

Kudos to Ted for putting together an even-handed presentation. This is the kind of reporting Bridge should do more of. Real investigation with data input from those involved.

I agree with Rich and disagree with Plumpe. An orderly, manageable process of cross-border labor is much preferred over the chaos that recently prevailed. It benefits the workers and the public at large.

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 11:11am

It is difficult for me to sympathize with farmers because now they must rely on legal means to hire seasonal workers, pay good wages, provide housing, pay for transportation expenses. As a consumer & tourist, I'm willing to pay more if economic & legal realities mean employers must treat employees right.

SHARI the citiz...
Tue, 07/25/2017 - 12:46pm

This is plain bull! Before welfare and programs like section 8 , hire a felon...who do you think worked the farms and in the depression who do you think did all the harvesting? We the American citizen did . Stop sugar coating these articles ..facts are facts . I listened I heard and it's crap plain and simple . American citizens first ! There are many citizens who work farms in michigan ..this is milarky! I argued this point on a fb under Obama when a Mexican citizen undocumented said black and white Americans are to lazy to do what he does picking in the fields sun up to sun down and he makes good money $8.00 a hr. I was mad ..but then I told him your right we wouldn't and we don't . In fact my twin nieces since age 16 with there mom , worked the corn fields (one of the hardest jobs) for $10.00 a hour . I told him that is why we don't want you here! So stop lying and saying you farmers pay $12.25 an hr.! He then told me Obama is going to make them all citizens ..and then they are going to take all the construction and factory jobs and they will get them too he said because we will work harder and for less money .

Deborah Kanter
Tue, 07/25/2017 - 1:38pm

The stats are notable. Good reporting, but I would love to read an article that included the workers' perspectives.

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 10:34pm

So, Trump lied during the campaign and did the exact opposite... and that 's support to be a "win". Another example of a conclusion in search of justification.

Jim Pratt
Wed, 07/26/2017 - 2:20am

I believe anyone who is willfully employing undocumented alien workers should be in jail. Farmers should pay whatever the labor market demands for Legal workers.

I would prefer U.S. Citizens get the jobs. Period.

Laura Volkmann
Wed, 07/26/2017 - 10:53am

The article repeatedly refers to undocumented workers, making it sound like farmers are knowingly hiring ineligible workers. Then, in a middle paragraph: "Michigan growers say it's impossible to know for certain if workers are undocumented, since employers are required by law to accept a variety of ID’s for employment, such as a Social Security card, birth certificate and driver's license. They can easily be forged." It does farmers a grave disservice to suggest they are/were deliberately skirting employment laws, when most are diligent and are not intentionally hiring workers who are not authorized by law to work in US.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 07/26/2017 - 1:34pm

"In Michigan, it's set at $12.75 an hour for 2017. When all expenses are figured in, farmers estimate workers cost about $17 an hour."

Does this strike anyone else as odd that they cannot "find" anyone by paying only $12.75, but will readily pay up to $17 (freely giving that raise in pay to the government)?

With the median hourly wage in Michigan being just above that $17 amount, I'm sorry, but why should I feel sorry for their "inability" to find help?


Ray Pittman
Wed, 07/26/2017 - 7:29pm

When advertising for local Americans for harvesting
Jobs, what hourly wage and support services are advertised? $17/hr equivalent?