Well, it’s happened. After several years of concerted GOP attacks on migrant farm workers, they’ve finally driven them away from Michigan in significant enough numbers that the apple harvest is at great risk.
The fault for the lack of workers is ostensibly blamed on the confusion created by last year’s poor yield compared to the 2013 bumper crop, but seasonal workers know better — growing success is a fickle thing and they have historically adjusted for those variables. They go where the work is, if welcome.
Another thing they rapidly adjust to is a hostile political environment — which Michigan GOP lawmakers have been sowing the seeds for in the form of outright contempt, along with a variety of proposed anti-seasonal worker laws. Their attacks on migrant labor abated ever-so briefly during the 2010 election cycle, but the effect still remains.
The Associated Press reports that apple growers are “desperate” for help in their seasonal harvest:
The Michigan Farm Bureau has sent “help wanted” postcards to agriculture labor contractors across the eastern U.S., mostly in Florida and Georgia. The net may be cast even wider, depending on the success of the appeal…
A rare early thaw followed by deep freezes in spring 2012 devastated apples, cherries and other orchard crops. Many seasonal laborers went to other parts of the country for jobs and haven’t returned this year.
Another problem is the immigration debate and crackdown on those who are in the country without legal permission, which has discouraged some workers from coming to Michigan, farmers say.
Michigan Labor.org has an interactive map that demonstrates the urgency of the need for workers, but they’re just not coming.
Agriculture is vitally important to the state’s economy, and it’s been a significant economic saving grace as Michigan’s manufacturing base evaporated in recent years.
If you are an urbanite, it’s easy to think this is primarily a rural and agricultural issue, but that simply isn’t so. Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw, Monroe, and Macomb Counties account for a whopping 302.6 million dollars of the statewide 71.3 billion in annual agribusiness. Farming is the number two industry in the state, and it’s proven more reliable than manufacturing as a dependable industry. It employs 600,000 people. The state is second only to California in crop diversity, with twelve of Michigan’s crops being number one in the nation. Many of these crops are dependent on seasonal workers to harvest them by hand. Farmers could not survive without this workforce, nor could our struggling economy.
We need migrants more than they need us.
This workforce also needs a place to live. Michigan has about 850 migrant housing locations, with about 4,400 living units to house around 22,000 people.
Yet, in the quaint Village of Elberta, Michigan, just south of Frankfort on the Lake Michigan shoreline, open hostility towards guest-workers is alive and well. Nestled in Benzie County, a mostly rural area with two major industries, tourism and farming, the village has become a hotbed of racial discrimination.
Last year, Elberta fruit grower Loy Putney applied to his village council for a permit to convert a vacant motel into guest-worker housing. In a public meeting, a member of the village council said, on the record, that he didn’t want some “Rhubarb” to come into town and open a “trash house”. The council subsequently attempted to hold a hearing on the matter, but not enough council members even attended to call the meeting to order, let alone vote on the matter. At that failed meeting someone placed copies of a news article about the beheading of Mexican drug traffickers, leaving the attendees to believe that Farmer Putney’s migrant workers were part of a drug cartel. Putney sued the village claiming discrimination.
Last year, Michigan lawmakers proposed a law to make English the official language of the state — requiring all documents to be written solely in English, including contracts.
Two years ago, GOP lawmakers pushed for an Arizona-style anti-immigrant law that was a red flag to seasonal workers — they were told, in effect, don’t come to Michigan.
Pure Michigan — It’s one bad apple.
Amy Kerr Hardin