Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 16, 2013

Migrant worker shortage hits orchards in Traverse City area

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Apples in many area orchards could go unpicked this season because of a shortage of migrant workers, area farmers and agricultural officials said.

“It’s very difficult to get the workers,” Benzie apple grower Mike Evans said Tuesday. “Mainly, I think it’s the immigration policy or lack of it. The other part of it is that we were short-cropped last year and migrant workers have found other jobs and didn’t come back.”

A March 2012 storm, followed by excessive heat and a late frost, wiped out 90 percent of the region’s tart cherry crop and much of its apple crop. Federal officials’ failure to agree on immigration reform policies also affected the migrant labor force in Michigan in recent years.

Evans said he has had migrant work crews lined up two or three times this season, only to have them disappear or not show up.

“They went elsewhere and some even went South,” he said. “I think some apple farmers are paying a lot to get crews this year.”

Nikki Rothwell, coordinator at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Center in Leelanau County, said not all growers and vineyards are affected.

“But there is a definite shortage,” she said, noting that worker shortages generally follow poor harvest seasons.

Some affected growers, particularly in the Grand Rapids area, are prioritizing and picking only varieties that have the best financial return, said Jim Bardenhagen, an area fruit and vegetable farmer and retired 20-year Leelanau County extension director.

Bardenhagen said several area farmers told him that only about half of migrant workers needed to pick apples in the region came to northwestern lower Michigan this year and that many are new to the work. He personally lost only one worker in his crew of three. Area crews generally can vary from about five to 30.

The estimated number of migrant workers statewide is 45,000, according to recent Associated Press reports. Kevin Benson, an agriculture employment specialist with the Workforce Development Agency, said the estimated migrant worker population in northwestern lower Michigan is often reported as 1,500 to 2,000, but the constant movement of migrant workers makes it hard to come up with more exact figures.

He attributed part of the shortage to many fluid factors, including an abundant apple crop this year -- which requires more migrant workers at the same time the grape harvest is on -- and the region is near the end of the migrant stream.

“Price of gas is a factor and sometimes workers find jobs along the way, plus it can be very cold here by November,” he said.

There are about 200 apple growers in the five-county Grand Traverse region. The harvest starts in late August and usually ends in early November in northern Michigan, if the weather cooperates. It’s still possible that area farmers will be able to get their whole crop off the trees, Bardenhagen said.

“It’s too early to tell up here whether some apples will have to be left on the tree,” he added. “It depends on the pickers and the market. Some downstate fresh market sellers already have said they have enough. If the processors say the same, that will leave a lot on the trees here.”

Rothwell said growers also have reported the higher number of new workers slowed the harvest and that they are seeing fewer families and more single male workers.

She said immigration reform has been a “huge” issue for growers.

“When Congress didn’t pass the farm bill this year, which typically passes easily, the concern was ‘Oh,no. What will happen to immigration reform?’” she said. “It’s a double whammy for the growers.”