When the cold, hard facts of farm labor collided with Friske Orchards, something warm and inviting happened.
It shouldn’t be too surprising. Visitors to the Friske farm, even on a chilly late-October morning, are met by Suede, the family pet who greets everyone with a welcoming tail and eager sniff. It’s peaceful, both at the farm and the retail store about a mile away, where a remarkable number of morning clients, many of whom are known by first name, pick up cider, coffee, donuts and apples, all as fresh and welcoming as the employees.
In the orchard, laborers finish up one of the last blocks of the year, picking up drops for juice and hustling to take a little break in the warmth of their quarters.
It is there, on the former site of five migrant mobile homes, where a two-year-old building shines, its roof grabbing solar rays for electricity and its unpretentious interior tidier than expected in a place where 16 H2A workers spend their leisure hours.
It is this building that earned Richard Friske and family the 2017 Governor’s Energy Excellence Award for “extraordinary efforts to reduce energy waste.” And it is here where labor problems that continually left the farm limping along have been largely healed.
Certainly, it’s not the new housing alone that brings workers back. But it helps.
“Being outside the beaten path has its own challenges,” said Craig Anderson, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Labor and Safety Services. “Good housing assists in retaining people under a situation of limited workers. Better housing improves the likelihood that they’ll return.”
Lack of a consistent, high-quality workforce was not the primary reason the Friskes built the new housing, which is licensed for 50 workers. But it is the primary reason they went into the H2A program through Michigan Farm Bureau’s Great Lakes Ag Labor Services (GLALS).
The housing began more as a cold necessity, but between the satisfaction of workers, energy efficiency and cost savings, it’s become a warm benefit to fellow members of humanity and a valuable business decision.
“We’ve had labor issues for 30-plus years,” Richard said. “In 1983, when my brother and I took over the farm from my parents, we used typical migrant labor housing, and dad could always find local people. They were always housed in old mobile homes. We kept them neat and tidy, but they were old. Every year we were spending thousands of dollars on new windows or doors and trying to hold them together. But we always met the (state and federal government) requirements, and as we added to the collection, the five we ended up with were always licensed.”
Then, about five years ago, Richard said, labor issues intensified.
After a couple workers were detained and jailed for improper documentation, the Department of Labor and Border Patrol “decided they wanted to visit us,” Richard said. Through a long winter of digging out records and producing just about every piece of paperwork they had, the government decided to back off.
“We spent that winter going through a lot of challenges,” he said. “But all our paperwork was in order, so things quieted down.”
Two years later, Richard said, the farm “got a full-blown raid” by Border Patrol, which had been monitoring the farm’s payroll records.
“They took eight people out of a house we were renting, and that was the first of July,” he said. “We were in the middle of strawberries. Cherry harvest was coming on, and we had zero workers.”
After “making an all-out effort to find local workers,” Richard said they got through the season, but he still calls it a miracle. The next year, Friske Orchards began recruiting in Texas, and work quality was not much better, he said. The following year, a dispute over a 12-year-old’s work status, combined with two federal agencies looking over their shoulders, led the Friskes to begin considering H2A.
“The Department of Labor was really giving us a hard time over the housing too, but again, they were minor things we were able to fix,” he said. “We weren’t pushed into the new housing by any of that, but it all happened at the same time.”
During the few years before that, the H2A program always seemed to be an option, but one the Friskes didn’t want to take.
“Every time we got more serious about H2A, we backed away in fear,” he said. “When Farm Bureau came up with the GLALS program, it helped us take the plunge.”
Happier with the quality of workers obtained through GLALS, the Friskes decided it was time to eliminate even potentially problematic situations.
“I hate throwing good money after bad,” Richard said. “We decided that if we were going to build, we should take advantage of all the latest in building technologies to make it as energy-efficient as possible.”
The Friskes, taking advantage of available tax credits, built the new housing using all-electric air-source heat pumps, thick walls and insulation, Energy-Star certified appliances and lighting, and solar panels which already produce more electricity than the “bunkhouse” needs.
“We never took solar too seriously before this project,” Richard said. “We were looking hard at it last fall for a couple big projects, but decided to see how this works for awhile.”
So far, it’s working just fine for the workers and owners. Richard said the family has emphasized maintenance and cleanliness to the workers, and they’ve responded well.
“I think it’s been a great investment,” he said. “Rather than just limping along with trailers that I was kind of ashamed of, I said ‘let’s do this right, and do it one time.’ We built it solid so it will last, and I don’t think I’ll ever have to worry about housing in my lifetime, and my kids might not have to either. The bottom line is that we can’t survive and grow without a good, stable field labor force. We’ve tried all the alternatives.”
Whether the combination of GLALS, H2A (or the proposed H2C program outlined beginning on page 1 of this edition), and state-of-the-art housing will ever warm the political chill surrounding agriculture’s labor needs is something the Friskes can’t predict.
But they can predict that their labor issues will likely never be as frozen as they once were. And in the end, as do many things that seem cold and indifferent at the start, the collision between labor and Friske Orchards started a thaw that will continue, relentlessly as winter turns to spring.