SUTTONS BAY — Don Gregory worries he might have trouble finding workers for his fields. He owns Cherry Bay Orchards and depends on migrant workers to prune his trees and pick apples.
“In northern Michigan we’re at the end of the migrant stream,” Gregory said. “We’re concerned that their work pattern changed last year.”
Frosts devastated local fruit crops in 2012 and many local owners are concerned the combination of last year's mixed-to-poor harvest and stricter immigration laws could make workers bypass northern Michigan.
About 90,000 migrant farm workers are estimated to come to Michigan every year, starting in May and June. Most of them have a Mexican heritage and travel from Texas and Florida. Work in northern Michigan centers around picking apples and grapes, but also in processing facilities for cherries.
The Leelanau County League of Women Voters surveyed 25 individuals in local agriculture for a 2012 study on migrant worker visas and found an overwhelming response that is difficult to find Americans for that work.
“The challenge is that young workers from the ages of 18 to 26, domestic workers, do not want farm labor,” said Suzanne Hoff, vice president of the League of Women Voters. “… They don’t want to be in the field. They want to drive equipment, or work in the office, but they don’t want to be in the fields, even when the hourly wage is competitive or better.”
Hoff said many documented migrant workers are avoiding Michigan because they have to pass through states like Georgia or South Carolina with strict "show me your papers" laws and fear harassment.
Gregory hopes recent talk of federal immigration reform includes a “meaningful” guest worker program. He said he usually hires between 70 and 100 migrant workers during apple season.
“We actually have a moratorium on planting apples until we find out where this story takes us,” he said.
One of Gregory's full-time workers, Jesus Baraja, knows the symbolic value of immigration reform. Three decades ago, he came from Guadalajara, Mexico to look for a job and better life.
He started picking apples at Cherry Bay Orchards and within five years earned a full-time position leading a crew, a rotating lineup of mostly migrant farm workers from Mexico.
Now he’s an American citizen and lives near Suttons Bay. He started the citizenship process around the time President Ronald Reagan initiated a brief national thaw in immigration by signing an amnesty law.
“It’s a long process, but it’s worth it,” he said.