Michigan’s food and agriculture workforce traditionally consisted of the self-employed and family members, but the trend has been showing a sharp increase in the need to hire additional labor within the food and agriculture communities.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey, hired labor rose from 25.3% in 2003 to 42% in 2016. The current labor situation is underscored by the increasing use of the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A program. In 2005, there were 48,000 applications; and in 2018, there were 243,000 applications nationally.
With an increased demand for hired labor in the food and agriculture sector, housing has become a major issue in Michigan.
The new Food and Agriculture Housing Task Force, led by Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) Deputy Director Dr. James Averill, will be delving into housing needs throughout the state. Other members include the departments of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and Labor and Economic Opportunity, Michigan Economic Development Corp., Michigan State Housing Development Authority, USDA Rural Development, and Michigan Farm Bureau.
Great Lakes Ag Labor Services (GLALS) was founded by Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) in 2015 to aid Michigan farmers in utilizing the H-2A Seasonal Guestworker program. According to GLALS General Manager Bob Boehm, a tight labor market, coupled with the lack of affordable housing, especially in many small towns and rural areas, are key factors limiting growth of Michigan’s food and agriculture industry.
“With more employers turning to the H-2A guest worker program where housing must be provided, as well as processors seeking workers who often must compete with tourism industry needs for seasonal housing, we encourage farmers and agri-businesses to attend a meeting in their area and share their concerns and experiences,” Boehm said. “We also want to explore the concept of establishing group-worker housing complexes in key areas to serve the needs of multiple seasonal employers. This has been done successfully in other states, providing safe, affordable housing that’s an asset to the local community and supports broader economic development.”
The growing need for additional housing for ag labor was highlighted last September during a tour of the Peterson Farms new employee housing complex in Oceana County. From that meeting, with the urging of MFB President Carl Bednarski to MDARD Director Gary McDowell, the Food and Agriculture Housing Task Force was formed.
Also, housing was a topic at December’s Great Lakes Expo with Marty Miller, executive director of the Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing based in Washington State. There, he shared the state’s experience addressing the farmworker housing shortage and how the concept of a group housing complex could be applied in Michigan.
“The state’s $104.7 billion a year food and agriculture sector is ripe for growth. We’ve consistently heard that a lack of hired labor is a significant impediment for those businesses. This is the first step for MDARD to help address the lack of housing,” MDARD Director Gary McDowell said in a statement. “The Task Force will be working to address the need for food and agriculture housing while balancing the individual needs of communities, which may have its own challenges and require a more regional solution-driven approach.”
Individuals interested in offering feedback about housing may take a survey through the following website: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/C2CYPTG.
MDARD will be hosting six regional town hall meetings across the state to hear from community leaders, economic development representatives, and food and ag-based businesses to garner input about their individualized needs. To RSVP for these meetings, click this link.
The meetings will be held on the dates listed below:
Taylor – Wednesday, February 5 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. Wayne County Community College, Ray Mix Conference Room 21000 Northline Road, Taylor
Grand Rapids – Tuesday, February 11 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. Western Michigan University – GR Beltline Campus, Woodland Suites 2333 E. Beltline Ave., S.E., Grand Rapids
Kalamazoo – Wednesday, February 12 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. MDOT Office Building, East/West Conference Rooms 1501 E. Kilgore, Kalamazoo
Frankenmuth – Tuesday, March 10 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. Saginaw Valley Research & Extension Center, Exhibition Room 3775 S. Reese Road, Frankenmuth
Traverse City – Monday, March 30 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. NW Michigan Horticultural Research Center 6686 S. Center Hwy., Traverse City
Escanaba – Tuesday, March 31 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. Bay de Noc Community College, Room 952, Herman University Center 2001 N. Lincoln Road, Escanaba
“These town hall meetings will help identify the needs of the food and ag businesses, the potential challenges within local communities, and how the department can be a catalyst for identifying regional solutions,” Averill said. “By addressing housing issues for food and agriculture, we will also help address workforce issues and continue to see the sector grow.”
Results from town hall meetings, survey, and one-on-one meetings will be used to develop a final report this summer to identify solutions and implementation plan.