TRAVERSE CITY — Dorrance Amos calls it a talent, a finely crafted skill, an art. One he knows he doesn’t have.
“It’s not as simple as everyone probably thinks it is,” he said. “It’s not just picking an apple off a tree, doing it again and moving on.”
Amos, who owns and operates Amos Farms in Williamsburg, is worried that come September — when the apples on his trees are ripe for the plucking — he won’t have those talented and finely crafted artists to do the work. He sees that as just another potential casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amos and other farmers, both locally and statewide, rely on the federal H-2A temporary visa program to provide them with deft hands and skilled labor throughout the spring and summer seasons as well as through the fall harvests. The government, under this program, allows employers who “anticipate a lack of available domestic workers to bring foreign workers to the U.S. to perform temporary or seasonal agricultural work.”
The departments of Homeland Security and Agriculture announced in mid-April temporary amendments to the program that would help employers avoid disruptions in their workforce and protect the country’s food supply chain amid pandemic-imposed travel restrictions.
H-2A workers previously approved through the program can continue work for their current employer, or must already be in the country to change employers. The amendments also allow workers to stay longer than the three-year maximum allowable period.
Michigan is the largest producer in the world for tart cherries, according to www.MichiganGrown.org, accounting for 70 percent of the United States supply. In 2018, Michigan farmers produced 201 million pounds of tart cherries at a value of $280.1 million.
The Great Lakes State is also the nation’s third largest producer of Apples, according to data from the Michigan Apple Committee, through more than 14.9 million apple trees covering 34,500 acres on 775 family-run farms.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the amendments are “critically important as we continue to see travel and border restrictions as a result of COVID-19,” and to “make sure farmers have access to these critical workers necessary to maintain the integrity in our food supply.”
Worry on the horizon
Amos farms cherries, apples, beans and wheat. He said he was “scared to death” that he would not get the H-2A workers he needed as his organization has become dependent on the program. He worked through the United States and Mexican consulates to secure two workers who arrived last month, but he said he will need 20 more for apple-picking season. Amos isn’t sure how likely he is to get those workers.
“We just can’t get any workers to come to the farm and work,” Amos said. “Everybody thinks we’re getting this scab labor, but these men know how to pick apples. It takes a special skill. I’ve been around this my entire life, but I’m useless. I couldn’t pick and keep up with these guys if my life depended on it.”
Both Amos and Tim Brian, president of Smeltzer Orchard Company, said the recent federal bump of $600 per week in unemployment benefits — while well-intentioned — is cutting into their potential labor force as well. Few are willing to give up the more money they receive on unemployment in favor of manual labor that comes with a lighter paycheck.
“Those benefits are pretty lucrative, at the moment, and it’s higher than what we can pay out,” Brian said. “There’s no motivation for people to go back to work, and I don’t blame people. If it’s there, you’ve got to take it.”
Amos is responsible for paying the H-2A workers at least $14.40 per hour, although he said they can make between $20-24 when things are going well. He also provides them with transportation to and from their home cities, a per diem, housing, transportation for errands, and transportation to and from job locations. He estimated that runs him about $1,350 per worker.
The two workers who arrived in April were isolated for two weeks to make sure they showed no signs of the coronavirus. Amos said they worked in separate fields with masks, gloves and other protective gear. Vital signs, including temperature, are also taken regularly as a precaution. Amos said going through that “drill” again could pose a challenge when — and if — those 20 workers come in September.
That “if,” Amos said, is his biggest fear.
“Without them, there’s nobody in this country that can pick apples properly and want to do it the right way,” he said.
Apples left to rot in the orchards will mean a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars for Amos, who said he was already struggling financially before the pandemic hit.
Insurance would cover some of the losses, Amos said, but “never enough” to cover the expenses. Amos said he was fortunate to get some payroll protection assistance from the government, but that does not extend to H-2A workers.
“Coming off the last three years, I’m pretty comfortable in saying that there isn’t anybody in the cherry business or even the apple business — which is the better of the two — that made any money,” Amos said. “It makes our bankers very nervous when we’re sitting on crops and waiting for a return and we don’t have a way to harvest it. That’s not a good sales point.”
Waiting for workers
An estimated 2 million seasonal agricultural workers are hired each year to harvest crops and handle livestock, according to the USDA. Many of those come from Mexico and Central America, often via requests through the H-2A program.
Requests through that program have increased more than five-fold in the last 15 years, according to a USDA report. The country’s third-largest employment region for seasonal workers, which includes Michigan, reached about 200,000 hires in 2018.
Beatriz Cruz Moreno, who chairs the Northwest Michigan Migrant Resource Council, said migrant workers are arriving, but not in the same numbers as before.
“It’s actually fairly slow, but they are arriving,” she said. “We do have families who are calling us and wanting to know what camps are going to open up because they don’t want to just show up and not find anywhere to stay.”
Cruz Moreno said the council works with just about every organization that has contact with the migrant community, including schools and health care. The council covers several counties in the region, including Leelanau, Benzie and Antrim.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services oversees nine regional councils, according to the state agency.
Local churches and nonprofits like the Leelanau County League of Women Voters also help, including chipping in to give migrant worker families bags of food and supplies like facemasks and hand sanitizer so they can quarantine for two weeks when they arrive, Cruz Moreno said.
She and other council members are getting information to migrant worker families, many of whom come from Texas and Florida, on how to stay safe from COVID-19. That covers everything from facemask use to where to call if they’re feeling sick, to following social distancing cues at supermarkets. Farmers are taking precautions as well, and Cruz Moreno believes this information push is why she’s not hearing fears from migrant workers about coming to the region and getting sick.
Migrant workers are considered to be high risk for impacts from the disease, in large part because of close living quarters, said Alicia Harmon, Northern Michigan Health Services enabling services coordinator. That’s especially true for those here without families on H-2A visas, who could be living up to six people per housing unit.
Playing it safe
That is why Nels Veliquette, of Shoreline Fruit in Traverse City, said safety has to be “job No. 1 in farm.”
Veliquette said the new practices are simply a different form of safety protocol that needs to be implemented. The rules and regulations around best practices for agriculture workers during the pandemic still are adapting to the situation, but Veliquette said it is important to “develop your own internal protocols to keep people safe.”
“The pandemic has just highlighted some of these issues we already knew were issues and already talk about but never really fix,” Veliquette said. “How do we keep these people that have to ride around in vehicles together, have to live in housing together, how do we keep them safe?”
That question keeps Veliquette up at night.
All of Veliquette’s workers wear gloves and masks and practice social distancing while working. He provides hand sanitizer and sanitizing stations for his workers. All employees also are required to answer questions sent out via text message every work morning at 7 a.m. to screen for any COVID-19 exposure or symptoms.
Veliquette, who has six H-2A workers now and expects 14 more later this year, said he’s been fortunate enough to answer “no” to those questions every day.
But he worries what happens when someone answers “yes.”
“There are going to be a lot of people that had it, that didn’t have it, that didn’t know they had it. How do we not treat people differently and just run the system that we have?” he said. “That’s a whole black box right there. We haven’t had to do it. We think we have a procedure to handle it. We won’t know until we get there.”
Down the supply chain
If workers don’t arrive, or work is interrupted by illness, the ramifications for the U.S. food supply could be serious.
Veliquette said each of his working crews can harvest 250,000 pounds of cherries per shift. If someone becomes ill or even exhibits symptoms, that crew is shut down for at least a week.
“There’s a million and half pounds that don’t get shook,” he said. “With cherries, it’s not like if you miss an opportunity you can just go to the back of the line and come back later to deliver them. They’re ready when they’re ready. Tart cherries especially, they’re very perishable.”
Veliquette said the industry will be hit even harder if local processing plants, like the one Brian runs at Smeltzer, are taken out of commission for any length of time.
A good processing plant, which prepares the food to be sold to vendors and other companies, can run through a million pounds per day, Veliquette said. No processing means those million pounds are running down the wrong side of good to bad.
Brian said without workers in his plant, he can’t take food from the grower to process it.
“Those losses trickle down,” Brian said.
As far as products on the shelf, it’s too early to tell.
Don Tomaszewski, Traverse City plant manager for GoGo Squeez/Materne North America, said he hasn’t heard much in way of concerns from the company’s suppliers.
“They’re not doing any harvesting now anyway — that won’t take place until October,” Tomaszewski said. “The big issue they’re dealing with at the moment is this frost and freeze event we’ve had in the past week, which has been a really challenging issue for the Michigan apple crop.”
Tomaszewski said the child-friendly applesauce producer doesn’t utilize seasonal laborers itself and he wasn’t sure how many of its Michigan-based suppliers utilize migrant workers.
“They have not expressed any concern to us about not being able to secure enough people to harvest,” he said. “So we’ll see — hopefully things will be better for our state and the whole nation by then — and the whole world, really.”
Return to normal
Veliquette is concerned the worst hasn’t come yet and that people might be lulled into a false sense of security simply because they have adapted to life with the cloud of COVID-19 hanging over their daily lives.
“We’re all settled into what we’ve developed as coping mechanisms, but we haven’t had another shock to the system yet,” he said. “That’s what is really going to be the test for us.”
But with a labor force in dire straits, plummeting sales and businesses scaling back, Amos wonders when the stress will subside and life will return to normal.
“We’ve got to get this damn corona thing stopped and back to normal or we’re going to be dead,” Amos said. “This whole thing has put us on the ropes. We’re at the point of cardiac arrest. This industry up here is in critical condition.”