SPARTA, Mich. — As Michigan’s apple harvest approaches, growers said they’ve grown increasingly anxious that a tougher immigration climate across the country will hamper their ability to find sufficient workers to bring in the crop.

Georgia’s new immigration law appears to have contributed to a reduced flow of migrant workers heading to northern parts of the country for fall harvests, Michigan agriculture representatives said. Growers said they haven’t seen as many “drive-ins” — carloads of workers — as they typically see this time of year.

“There are some indications … that the labor isn’t there,” Pat Chase, salesman for Sparta, Mich.-based Jack Brown Produce Inc.

“That could be a real problem with the rest of agriculture, not just Michigan apples. It’s a little unnerving.”

Critical need

A sufficient supply of migrant labor is critical for Michigan apple growers, whose crop is almost entirely hand-harvested. Unpicked apples deteriorate after reaching peak condition and eventually drop to the ground, costing growers income.

Migrant workers from Mexico and other countries harvest about 1 billion Michigan apples every year, earning about $12-15 an hour, according to an industry trade group. Michigan agriculture employs about 45,000 migrant workers every year.

“The No. 1 concern of growers in Michigan is availability of labor,” said Denise Donohue, executive director of the DeWitt-based Michigan Apple Committee.

“We need skilled workers to handle this.”

While Michigan growers may make it through this year’s harvest, they say the longer-term labor outlook is growing increasingly difficult amid sentiment among federal and state lawmakers toward tighter immigration enforcement.

Georgia’s law, which took effect in July, carries penalties for harboring or transporting illegal immigrants in some situations and allows law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspects who can’t show an approved form of identification. Also, private employers with more than 10 workers must eventually use a federal database called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires.

E-Verify legislation

In Michigan, state Rep. Dave Agema, a Republican from Grandville, introduced legislation in January that would require state government employers or contractors to use E-Verify for each new employee. The law, if passed, wouldn’t apply to Michigan growers, Agema said. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Sept. 13 in Lansing.

Michigan apple growers say they hope to avoid any E-Verify requirements but still fear facing a situation similar to what happened to several of the state’s asparagus producers last spring.

Lacking sufficient workers for harvest, several growers were forced to mow their asparagus crops, resulting in the loss of about 1 million pounds of asparagus valued at $850,000, according to John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, DeWitt. The lost production amounted to about 5% of the state’s asparagus crop, Bakker said.

Jim Bynum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, said a labor shortage is growing “progressively worse” every year.

“We don’t want illegals any more than anyone else,” Bynum said. But “we have contracts to fulfill. We need to recognize we need to use migrant labor. It’s a fact of life.”

‘The No. 1 concern of growers in Michigan is availability of labor. We need skilled workers to handle this.’