Labor a growing problem in Michigan

06/28/2010 03:10:57 PM
Ashley Bentley

SODUS, Mich. — Although Michigan growers, packers and shippers have been able to secure enough labor to get through this season, labor continues to cost more and is becoming harder to obtain.

In 2009, budget cuts at the state’s department of agriculture meant fewer inspectors to license for safe migrant labor housing, leaving many growers worried they wouldn’t get their required inspection during the growing season.

This year, Michigan growers are paying out-of-pocket for labor inspections, instead of the funds coming from the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

Growers had to pay $5 per legal occupancy space of the camp, not for actual employed workers, so in most cases, they were paying for some unoccupied spaces.

The $5 was new this year, but for next year, it’s going up to $30.

Immigration issues

Immigration remains one of the biggest concerns for Michigan growers, said Fred Leitz Jr., partner in Leitz Farms and executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

“It’s a shame we’re one of the most productive countries in the world and we don’t have a legal workforce,” Leitz said.

At least a dozen other states are considering an immigration law similar to the one Arizona passed this year, and Michigan is one of them.

“I agree with a lot of that (the Arizona law), but how do you get someone to work for three months?” said Dave Miedema, president of E. Miedema & Sons, Byron Center.

While the state’s high unemployment rate may have urged a few to go knocking on growers’ and shippers’ doors for summer work, it’s not as many as one might think.

“There are a lot of people without jobs, but I’ve got to compete with unemployment, and they won’t take these jobs,” said Russell Costanza, owner of Russell Costanza Farms. “They would rather take unemployment and stay home.”

Costanza said he supports the AgJobs bill, which would make foreign workers able to work in agriculture for five years before getting their green cards.

“Finding people to work today is getting tough,” Costanza said.

Frank Bragg, chief executive officer of MBG Marketing, Grand Junction, said labor supply issues usually only arise when there are abnormal patterns in other growing areas.

“Occasionally there are spotty problems with labor, but I think it’s just in transition,” Bragg said. “Usually, they travel from the south up north, so if there are labor issues it’s usually because one area is later than normal or earlier than normal.”

Other labor factors

Costanza said his company is trying to improve labor housing by getting rid of house trailers.

“We still have three, and that’s three too many,” Costanza said.

The company built new, small red houses that are safer and more reliable than the trailers, he said.

Leitz said child labor is becoming a hot issue lately, and he doesn’t quite understand why.

“There’s nothing wrong with youths working on farms if supervised,” Leitz said. “What better opportunity is there for rural teenagers?”

Leitz said if the government is going to be stricter on child labor in agriculture, it needs to be stricter on everyone.



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