Traverse City Record-Eagle


October 8, 2007

Migrant workers labor in grape harvest

OMENA -- A gust of wind blew through the vineyard and ripped netting from a harvester's grasp, then workers yelled to stop a tractor so they could secure the large, protective net over precious grapevines.

It's harvest season for local wineries, and workers at Leelanau Cellars are busying themselves protecting 70 acres of grapes they'll pick for the wine makers.

"It's a little difficult, but I'm accustomed to it because I've almost always worked in the field," Victor Magana said in Spanish while he twist-tied netting over grape vines on an unseasonably warm day last week.

Harvesters picked two acres of baco noir grapes -- more than 13,900 pounds -- early last week, Leelanau Cellars' general manager Tony Lentych said.

A crew of about 16 to 22 people are paid five cents for each pound they pick, foreman Juan Carlos Guillen said.

Workers like Guillen and Magana account for an estimated 1,400 migrant and seasonal farm laborers in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties, according to a 2006 Michigan Department of Human Services study.

It's tiring, physical labor that most American-born people won't do, but a job for which these Mexican immigrants are grateful.

"Americans, they don't make it, they can't handle the work," Lentych said, recalling a local man who came to work the harvest. "He walked out at lunch; he didn't want to work like they did."

Guillen's foreman job helped send his three children to college and provides housing and better pay than he'd get in Mexico.

He moved to Texas in 1986, and has been in Michigan for 10 years. He started off as a seasonal laborer, but decided to stay in Leelanau County after his children lost school credits because they split their time between Michigan and Texas.

Magana also likes Michigan for his five children's sake. Originally from Mexico, he lived in California for 19 years and most recently in Texas. He came to Michigan in June to work the fruit harvests and is considering staying here year-round. He sees a better future for his children here because drugs were a problem in the schools they attended in Fort Worth, Texas.

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