By Jeremy C. Nagel
HART — As if fruit and vegetable growers didn’t have enough to worry about at the fickle whims of Mother Nature, the shortcomings of federal labor and immigration policy add anxiety and uncertainty producers could really do without. Complicating matters further are the multiple overlapping—and not overlapping—agencies charged with carrying out various policy components; local, state and national agencies all have parts to play.
Hoping to detangle that mess, the Oceana County Farm Bureau last month hosted a panel discussion that brought together representatives of two of the most anxiety-inducing agencies on the ag labor scene: the U.S. Department of Labor and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“Also on the panel were Oceana County Sheriff Craig Mast and Kim Clarke, an agricultural law specialist with Varnum Law,” said Laura Herrygers with Great Lakes Ag Labor Services, the MFB affiliate company that helped coordinate the event.
Upwards of 50 local fruit and vegetable growers attended the forum—a generous turnout reflecting the hunger for frank, credible information and insights.
“Central to the panel was a pair of DOL investigators. Those are the folks who come out to farms to do H2-A audits,” Herrygers said. ICE was represented by community relations officer Valentina Seeley.
ICE “activity” in Oceana County last year resulted in the removal of several seasonal workers—some with outstanding warrants, others without documentation.
Retired MSU Extension agent Norm Meyers was in attendance, alongside dozens of local growers he’s worked with for years.
“It allowed growers a chance to ask questions of regulators in a safe sort of environment, without fear of punitive action,” Meyers said.
“It was eye-opening to a lot of the growers—they really liked it,” Herrygers said. “It gave them an opportunity to talk with DOL before they were on their farms to do an audit. They could ask tough questions under less stressful, less pressured circumstances—you’re not under a microscope because it’s not DOL on your farm doing an audit.”
Moderating the discussion was Dawn Drake, director of the Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association (MACMA).
“It allowed growers to listen to each party’s position on labor and clear up some of the misconceptions about what DOL does, what the sheriff’s department role is, and what ICE’s intentions are,” Drake said.
One of the most common misconceptions, she added, was that the sheriff department targets seasonal farm workers.
“That’s not true at all,” Drake said. “They don’t specifically seek out migrant workers. They’re looking for people with infractions.”
Oceana County Farm Bureau President Gerrit Herrygers said MFB’s County Farm Bureau Grant Program was instrumental in making the event possible. He was pleased with the turnout, which he said benefitted from casting a wider net that stretched well beyond his county’s usual faces.
“We invited all our regular members, of course, but also MACMA members as well,” he said. As a result, there were a of unfamiliar faces among the attendees, including growers from outside the Farm Bureau circle, or members whose involvement in programming has declined over the years.
“Everybody I talked to thought it was a good format and very much worth their time,” Herrygers said. “They didn’t necessarily leave feeling more comfortable, but definitely more cautious.”