Cooperative approach could overcome H-2A challenges

To combat recent labor shortages, agriculture groups in Michigan are developing what might be a singular solution: a cooperative H-2A program.

“I’m not aware of similar programs,” said Sarah Pion, Michigan Farm Bureau’s (MFB) regional representative for southwest Michigan. “I think this is one of the first cooperative efforts like this.”

When fully in place, the cooperative program could be a “one stop shop” for Michigan users of H-2A – the federal program that allows ag employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis – streamlining what many growers find to be a “complex and detailed” process, said Bob Boehm, manager of MFB’s Center for Commodity, Farm and Industry Relations.

MFB has been working with commodity groups, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) and the Office for New Americans, a state-appointed entity focused on attracting legal immigrants to Michigan, to figure out how to bring more seasonal farm workers to the state. The groups decided H-2A was the best way to do that, said Dawn Drake, manager of Michigan Processing Apple Growers, an MFB affiliate.

MFB and MDARD are working out the potential structure of the cooperative H-2A program. Much will depend on lessons learned from a pilot program that started this year. The pilot will focus only on apples, but the plan is for the permanent program to include multiple crops. Since the H-2A application process can take up to 90 days, apple growers were the only ones who had time to start; they won’t need the workers until fall harvest, Boehm said.

Pion, the MFB representative, is working directly with the five apple growers participating in the pilot, as well as masLabor, the Virginia-based company that’s recruiting the H-2A workers. Her job is to answer questions, help with paperwork – generally be a support person. The five growers expect to hire about 115 H-2A workers this fall, which would be about a third of their total workforce, she said.

According to backers, the goal is to gain as much information as possible from the pilot, then roll out details on the permanent program by December, perhaps during the next Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO.

MFB will most likely manage the permanent program. There will be costs involved for participating growers, but cost packages are still being worked out. Participants will be required to meet all federal H-2A standards including housing, transportation and payroll. There will be many hurdles to overcome, but Boehm said he was “cautiously optimistic.”

Dwindling options

Michigan’s use of H-2A workers has been “fairly minimal” up to this point. Growers can sign up for the program individually, and some do, but most seem overwhelmed by the process, Boehm said.

John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, said H-2A’s expenses are daunting for many growers. It doesn’t make sense to spend all that time and money bringing workers in to harvest a single crop (asparagus season, for example, lasts only seven or eight weeks) unless you give them more to do.

A cooperative H-2A program could solve that problem by moving workers from farm to farm and crop to crop. Growers would benefit by sharing transportation, housing and other costs. Bakker wasn’t aware of any Michigan asparagus growers using H-2A labor in 2014, but he’s confident some will be using it next year.

Finding alternative ways to bring seasonal labor to Michigan has become a necessity. The state’s traditional pool of farm workers – typically out-of-state families who commuted back and forth – is dwindling, a process that was exacerbated by the devastating freezes of 2012, which wiped out most of Michigan’s apple and cherry crops that year. Those lost crops, and the jobs that went with them, raised concerns that many workers would seek more reliable employment outside the state – which is exactly what happened in 2013, Boehm said.

The quality of the workers who did show up last year wasn’t what it has been in the past. Statewide, about 5 million bushels of apples went unpicked in 2013 – and the fruit that was picked wasn’t picked in a high-quality fashion. In some orchards, there were sit-down strikes and demands for more money. The workers knew they were in the driver’s seat, Drake said.

In Michigan’s asparagus fields, labor shortages have become particularly acute in the last three years. Migrant workers aren’t returning in sufficient numbers to harvest the entire crop. Because of that, older fields have been abandoned or plowed out and new plantings have been curtailed. The uncertainty isn’t worth the investment, Bakker said.

“We need to look at alternatives to what we’ve been doing.”

Matt Milkovich

Originally posted Tuesday, Jul. 8, 2014