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What farmers want from Michigan’s next U.S. senator

Chad Reenders is wearing a white cowboy hat and blue shirt. He is in a farm
Chad Reenders, a fourth-generation blueberry farmer and president of the Michigan Blueberry Advisory Committee, at his farm in West Michigan. (Courtesy Chad Reenders)
  • U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, longtime leader on agricultural issues, will soon retire
  • Farmers seek in her replacement a candidate who is open to bipartisan solutions, buoying farmers against volatile industry forces
  • Getting a farm bill done at the top of to-do list, farmers also concerned about filling labor shortages and farm-friendly trade policy

A big shift is coming for Michigan’s farming industry at the federal level as U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the longtime chair of the Senate’s agriculture committee, prepares to retire. 

As she winds down her final term and campaigns ramp up in a competitive race for her soon-to-be open seat, farmers and their advocates say their main hope is that whoever replaces Stabenow brings a solutions-oriented attitude to agriculture issues and supports safety nets to cushion the industry from forces outside farmers’ control.


“Whoever the next candidate is has to realize that farmers are kind of a foundation of Michigan's economy,” said Chad Reenders, a fourth-generation blueberry farmer and president of the Michigan Blueberry Advisory Committee. “It all comes back to agriculture.” 


Top of mind for most Michigan farmers is getting an updated farm bill signed into law as soon as possible, despite deep disagreements among federal lawmakers that could prevent a long-term bipartisan solution before the current version expires. 

The farm bill is a massive, multibillion-dollar act that sets farm policy and funds a wide array of agricultural supports and nutrition programs. The law is typically rewritten every five years, though the last version was signed in 2018 and was extended to expire on Sept. 30. 

That’s an issue because the current rules governing farms were written before the COVID-19 pandemic, high inflation rates, supply chain issues and other major shifts for the agriculture industry, John Kran, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, told Bridge Michigan. 

“We need a farm bill that can be for 2024 and the next five years that keeps up with all these challenges,” he said.

a cornfield at sunset
The main federal priority for most Michigan farmers is getting a new farm bill through Congress, a task that could bleed into next year amid partisan disputes. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)

The Republican-controlled House Agriculture Committee passed its version of a farm bill last month. Senate Democrats — led by Stabenow — haven’t yet released a farm bill text, but are supporting a framework that would include a funding boost for crop insurance and climate impact mitigation. 

Stabenow has been highly critical of the House Republicans’ plan, citing concerns over reductions in funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and climate conservation. She recently told The Detroit News that she’s hopeful Congress can pass a farm bill before her term ends, but “not at all costs.” 

Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said there’s a bigger divide than usual on the farm bill. He predicted a “low chance” of lawmakers ironing out disagreements in time and said a more likely outcome is Congress opting to extend the current version until after the fall elections or next term.

“From a farmer’s perspective, it really creates a lot of uncertainty” about what insurance programs, grant opportunities or contracts will be available in the next planting season, Lilliston said. “It’s going to be very risky for farmers to not have a farm bill and to feel like the situation is very volatile.”

Here’s a look at other issues Michigan farmers are paying attention to.

Labor costs

Industry insiders say one of the biggest pressure points for Michigan farmers is finding enough seasonal workers to harvest crops — and affording them. 

Like employers in most sectors of Michigan’s economy, farmers are struggling to fill labor shortages as the state’s domestic population stagnates and gets older. 

Many have sought to fill in the gaps using the federal H-2A program, which authorizes temporary immigration clearance for foreign workers seeking agricultural jobs. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor certified about 370,000 temporary jobs under the H-2A program, 4% of which were in Michigan.

Farms hiring migrant workers are subject to the federal government’s “adverse effect wage rate,” a policy aimed at keeping employment opportunities fair for domestic farm workers. Michigan’s 2024 rate is set at $18.50 per hour — among the highest in the country, according to a Michigan State University study — and farmers using H-2A workers are also on the hook for paying housing and transportation costs. 

“We've seen the wage rate that we’re federally required to pay go up about 20% the last two years,” said Kran, of the Michigan Farm Bureau. “We've got fifth and sixth generation family farmers that are saying, ‘This may be it if we have another big wage increase.’”

Michigan U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Caledonia, has proposed temporarily freezing rate hikes, though critics are concerned doing so could worsen existing shortages or exacerbate other issues with the H-2A system. 

Reenders categorized labor difficulties as the number one issue facing blueberry growers in Michigan.

“As farmers, we’re trying to revamp it, adapt it,” Reenders said of laws governing wage rates for farm workers. “It seems like there’s just an old dictionary left to sit on the shelf that nobody wants to change.” 

Specialty crop support

With more than 300 agricultural commodities produced, Michigan is among the most agriculturally diverse states in the U.S. and is the leading producer of several fruits and vegetables, including tart cherries and asparagus. 

Fruits and vegetables are considered “specialty crops” and are treated differently under federal policies than commodity row crops like wheat, corn or soybeans. 

Farmers growing specialty crops historically hadn’t been eligible for the same supports, such as crop insurance or federal grant funding, but they were included in recent farm bills. Michigan farmers are hoping that continues. 

“Specialty crops don't typically have as much clout as the cash crops,” said Juliette King-McAvoy, vice president of sales and marketing at King Orchards fruit farm in Northwest Michigan. “The focus on specialty crops has been invaluable to us, and we hope to continue to have that.”

Farmer-friendly trade policy

Michigan’s agricultural industry also frequently seeks support from the federal government on foreign trade issues, whether it’s expanding market opportunities to get locally-grown products into other countries or protecting farmers from being undercut by cheap imports. 


One notable example of the latter is in Michigan’s tart cherry industry, where cherry growers have argued imports from eastern European countries like Turkey have made prices drop dramatically and reduced demand for local cherries. 

Michigan farmers in 2019 sought a 650 percent tariff increase on Turkish cherries. The request was rejected in 2021, after the U.S. International Trade Commission found tart cherry producers were “not materially injured” by Turkish imports, and that there weren't enough Turkish cherries imported to significantly impact the market. 

“Small, minor trade agreements can devastate a whole segment of Michigan agriculture,” said state Sen. Roger Victory, a Hudsonville Republican and vegetable farmer. “We can't neglect or have agriculture become a casualty just to have some new trade policies.”

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