Agriculture To Congress: Secure Labor Force, Pass Immigration Reform Now

Farmers from multiple crops gather in Grand Rapids.

Published on: Oct 23, 2013

A broad spectrum of Michigan farmers and growers were represented in Grand Rapids Oct. 10, to draw attention to Michigan agriculture's serious need for a functional visa system to obtain an adequate skilled workforce.

Surrounded by photos of unharvested fruits and vegetables that were wasted for lack of skilled harvesters, representatives spoke about the decade-long effort to obtain immigration reform.

Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development Commissioner Don Coe, also managing partner of Black Star Farms a commercial vineyard and winery in Suttons Bay, called for Congress to take action now.  Coe outlined a series of actions that could easily document an immigrant workforce.

Agriculture To Congress: Secure Labor Force, Pass Immigration Reform Now
Agriculture To Congress: Secure Labor Force, Pass Immigration Reform Now

"I come at the issue of migrant labor and immigration reform as both a winery operator and MDARD Commissioner for seven years," Coe said.  "I fully understand that comprehensive immigration reform is a hot-button issue.

"Yet we will always need a new workforce to take the jobs our current workforce does not want to do.  Once you are established in a job and a place, you do not want to migrate from job to job and place to place," Coe said in calling for a functional and secure visa system to provide a reliable source of documented agricultural workers.

Michigan ranks second among all states in the diversity of crops grown, and over half of the state's agriculture value is in specialty crops such as greenhouse and woody plants, Christmas trees, and fruits and vegetables which aren't mechanized and must be tended by hand.   Other large industries, including the poultry and dairy industries are also labor-intensive and suffering for lack of a functional worker visa system for immigrants.

Flanked by photos of apples having dropped to the ground, rotting tomatoes and unpicked asparagus, the Michigan apple industry said that the lack of labor to hand-harvest what is likely to be one of the state's largest apple crops is a serious problem.

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"Michigan's growers are currently down about 20% in terms of number of pickers to harvest the apple crop," said Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.  "Growers are working very hard, in some cases with night shifts in place, to get this large crop harvested. Comprehensive immigration reform will help to get a legal, steady workforce in place that our growers can draw upon."

Fred Leitz of Leitz Farms, LLC, a strawberry, apple and vegetable grower in Sodus, gave an impassioned plea for Congress to finally pass immigration reform.  He described 30 acres of tomatoes planted this year at a cost of $150,000 that were only able to be harvested once.  Normally, the tomatoes would have been harvested twice a week for five weeks, but a lack of skilled pickers meant the crop had to be abandoned.

"My three brothers and I are the fourth generation on this specialty crop farm," said Leitz, who is also Eastern vice chair of the National Council of Agricultural Employers and a director on the board of US Apple Association.  "If we don't get immigration reform this time around, we will be known as the last generation to grow specialty crops on this family farm."

"It's obvious Congress doesn't know simple economics, and supply and demand," Leitz commented.  "Take US agriculture out of the growing of specialty crops and you will see food prices rise dramatically."

Leitz's comments were echoed by Tom Stenzel, President and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association located in Washington, DC.  UFPA is the nation's leading trade association for the fresh produce industry.

"Across the country, states like Michigan with the highest production levels of fruits and vegetables are facing chronic and deepening labor shortages," Stenzel said.  "Although fruit and vegetable growers pay highly competitive wages, realistically we must rely on foreign-born labor to harvest and pack our crops."

"If U.S. producers are to continue to be able to grow fruits and vegetables to feed our fellow citizens, Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform that provides a fair way for workers today to achieve legal status, and also provide a future legal immigration system to meet agricultural needs," Stenzel said.

Comprehensive immigration reform passed the U.S. Senate this summer, but has stalled in the House.  Michigan's congressional delegation has been reluctant to champion immigration reform, a factor critical to the profitability and viability of agriculture in the state.