Food and agriculture workers have been consistently designated as essential under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders. What that means for migrant workers and the agriculture industry is still unclear.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture recently sent a survey to agriculture employers to gain insight for an forthcoming executive order addressing this issue.
Mason and Oceana counties have labor-intensive agriculture — the type that doesn’t primarily use mechanization for harvesting.
Michigan is the second most diverse state in agriculture. Many types of food grown in Michigan requires specific labor needs.
“Here we have a whole array of fruits and vegetables. A number of farmers in the area use migrant workers,” said Seth Earl, the Mason-Lake district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
His role is to work with landowners to address resource concerns and he is also the county Farm Bureau president. He and his wife, Lindsay, are on the national Young Farmers & Ranchers board of directors and assist with her family’s dairy farm in Free Soil.
The “migrant” labor force in this area includes the transient population that moves in and out during the harvest season and people who live here year-round but are originally from Central America, according to Earl.
H-2A and H-2B, two nonimmigrant worker classifications, are part of the guest worker program designed to bring a mobile workforce into the U.S. Earl said he did not know how many farmers used the guest worker program in this area. Farmers are not obligated to use the workers from the program.
“It is one tool available to a farmer,” he said.
A shortage of labor would significantly impact the food supply, he said.
“The migrant workforce will be in place for the spring crops or there will be a shortage in the grocery store,” Earl said. “A migrant workforce is incredibly important and incredibly crucial to American agriculture. In a lot of cases, they are performing activities necessary to our food supply. They provide the necessary backbone, whether they are the ones sitting on an asparagus cart or pulling apples off of the tree.”
Earl said the time to bring in workers is quickly approaching with the first asparagus harvest, however, even if the migrant workers are allowed to enter the state and move between farms, the employers may not be able to hire them.
“There are a lot of concerns outside of the workforce,” Earl said. “What happens when there isn’t much of a market and the commodities are below break-even price? Do they want to bring in people to harvest food that doesn’t have any value?”
Dr. Trey Malone explained the demand for certain fruits and vegetables altered when people stopped eating at restaurants and started eating from home.
Malone is an assistant professor in the department of agriculture, food and resource economics at Michigan State University.
“Everyone is still eating but not in the same way. People think that ‘people are still eating.’ The majority of onions, for example, are purchased by restaurants,” he said.
The shift in demand could result in a change in the supply of certain commodities.
“If someone isn’t there to pick the asparagus, or pull that apple off the tree, our entire food delivery system could be null and void before it gets started. From a national level, there is a push to keep that avenue open,” Earl said. “We need a work force and we need a market.”
The shifts in the food and supply chain were sudden and it is taking time for each part of the process to adjust, Malone said.
“When I was young, my dad would put a red delicious apple in our stockings. It was a symbol to him. As a kid it was very cool for him to eat an apple in the middle of winter in Kansas. It’s something I take for granted now. There has been an unbelievable shift in availability of foods (since the 1980s),” he said. “This was an unprecedented shock to the world, and people are still getting food, which is incredible in itself.”
Malone said the agricultural industry has proven resilient, despite the challenges presented by shifting demands.
“This expedited thinking to innovate in ways they weren’t already. I’m unable to say what the industry will do, but I have confidence in the entrepreneurial spirit of Michigan agriculture,” he said.
Malone predicted the next executive order will positively impact growers.
“Michigan has a long, rich history in agriculture … and that passion isn’t going anywhere. There are public policy unknowns right now, but there is intention there in hopes that there will be promotion for agriculture production,” he said.
“There is no magic answer. Once we come out of this, I think we should take a long hard look at how we produce food and how to support the people who produce our food.”