Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 2, 2014

Panel to discuss local migrant worker shortage

By MICHELLE MERLIN mmerlin@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY -- The national immigration debate remains a hot topic, even way up in northern Michigan, more than 1,000 miles from the U.S.-Mexican border.

The region's many fruit producers rely on migrant labor to harvest their crops, but in recent years tougher immigration laws and an inconsistent harvest led to fewer workers traveling so far north.

In the last harvest, apple farmers left about 20 percent of their apples on the trees, in part because there weren't enough workers to pluck the fruit. Too few migrant workers also keyed a 30 percent loss in specialty crops such as asparagus, said Don Coe, a managing partner at Black Star Farms and a member of the Michigan Commission of Agriculture & Rural Development.

“For those of us with vineyards, we’ve had to hold off on planting new vineyards because we’re not sure we’re going to have workers to tend the vineyards,” Coe said. “There’s been a significant and direct impact on the harvest, particularly in the last two years.”

Members of the League of Women Voters Leelanau County studied the migrant worker-immigration issue for more than two years and will host a panel discussion on the subject on Wednesday.

“Our domestic labor won’t take the jobs or they only last a day or two. The work is just not what our domestic workers want to do, even for a competitive wage of $10 an hour,” said Suzanne Hoff, the study chair for the farm labor task force at the League of Women Voters Leelanau County. “(Farmers) have historically relied on migrant labor.”

In 2012, 1,585 migrant workers came to Leelanau County, and many brought their families with them, according to a state study released in 2013. They travel far -- from places like Texas and Florida -- and come to the area in part for quality educational and health programs, Hoff said.

That doesn’t mean the move is easy. Migrant workers struggle to find suitable housing.

Bardenhagen Berries, a farm in Lake Leelanau, housed migrant workers since the 1960s, said Christi Bardenhagen, who also is a member of the farm labor task force. Bardenhagen said the farm is home to about 50 people during the berry harvest season, which starts in June, and then continues to house workers as they move on to work on apple and other crops with later seasons.

“We would like to see more growers put in good housing, even though it's expensive, because if you don’t have the people to pick the fruit, you’re not going to get it done," Bardenhagen said.

Bardenhagen said workers also have trouble making it to northern Michigan if all family members aren’t documented, or if children have to be pulled out of school. And the seasonal northern migration has become tougher thanks to stricter immigration laws, particularly in the southern United States.

“If you had a family that couldn’t come back, you would pretty much be guaranteed of finding extra help,” Bardenhagen said. “That’s not the case anymore. They’re not coming up unless they know they have a job.”

The League of Women Voters Leelanau County will host the event Wednesday at noon in the Leelanau County Government Center. Panelists include Ana Garcia, a former migrant worker who's now a student at Northwestern Michigan College; Don Gregory, owner of Cherry Bay Orchards; Ginger Bardenhagen, who works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development as a migrant housing inspector; and Sierra Gould, the director of Telamon Migrant Head Start in Suttons Bay.