TRAVERSE CITY — It started out with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and talks of college football, toy wolf ears, and Lake Michigan’s clear water.
And then came the conversations about Michigan agriculture: Namely, farmers’ ongoing challenges finding and affording adequate labor.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall heard those farmers’ concerns as he toured the state Tuesday through Thursday. He stopped at Royal Farms Inc. in Ellsworth, LaCross Farms in Cedar, Aurora Cellars and Red Path in Lake Leelanau, Materne’s GoGo Squeez in Grawn, and Great Lakes Potato Chip Co., Jacob’s Farm, and Moomers in Traverse City.
According to Duvall, a third-generation Georgian livestock farmer, AFBF won’t rest until it finds a solution to the labor situation.
“We got some real challenges ahead of us, and I hear about them all,” he told the District Nine Ag Summit crowd at the Great Wolf Lodge. The summit, which missed a year due to COVID-19, incorporates five MFB county annual meetings into one.
“They’re no different here than in northern California or Georgia or Texas. All of us are facing headwinds, and several of you have said something about labor: We will not rest until we have a workable guestwork program that fills agriculture’s needs.”
Those needs are plenty, said Chris Alpers, a Suttons-Bay apple grower and member of Northwest Michigan Farm Bureau.
Alpers said the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) is hard to predict and puts unchecked pressures on farmers’ budgets. He said some areas have seen upwards of 10% increase in wages paid to migrant workers.
National average AEWR is $13.99, up from $11.74 in 2016.
“Mr. Duvall and I agree: The shortage of dependable labor is a critical problem facing American agriculture, and for Michigan apple growers, it’s the number one problem,” said Alpers, who operates about 1,000 acres of cherries and apples at Red Path Orchards. “Without adequate labor, I and other apple producers are out of business.”
Alpers said the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) would fix that labor program and make it easier for farmers and ranchers to employ migrant workers. He currently employs up to 40 H-2A seasonal guestworkers.
The program in Michigan saw a 38% year-over-year increase in 2022.
“I am hopeful Mr. Duvall was able to see some of the challenges myself and other growers are facing after our visit and help us get this bill over the finish line,” he told Michigan Farm News.
Sam Simpson of Aurora Cellars said it’s important to open dialogue with ag leaders who can influence national policy.
“These kinds of opportunities are giant for our industry because they're pivotal parts of our active daily lives,” said Simpson, a Northwest Michigan Farm Bureau member.
Simpson employs 20 H-2A workers.
“The H-2A program allows us to exist at this point because there is not a domestic ag labor pool for us to draw from. The thing we really want to focus on is helping to fix and hone that program, making it more user-friendly.”
The FWMA passed the House March 18, 2021.
The Senate has not yet acted on FWMA or other guestworker legislation, but Farm Bureau continues to push the Senate to take the next step and get a bill to the president’s desk and offer more certainty for farmers.
“While Farm Bureau was glad to see the House pass bipartisan legislation that addresses both the guestworkers and the current workforce, we had some concerns with certain pieces of the legislation that if not addressed would present both long- and short-term challenges for farmers,” said John Kran, MFB’s national legislative counsel. “For this reason, we did not endorse the bill.”
Those concerns for Duvall and Farm Bureau include private right-of-action and a cap on year-round workers.
“The labor issue is one we've been working on for years and years and years,” Duvall told Michigan Farm News. “But there have been several pieces of legislation that have come across that we could not support, and in those pieces of legislation there are issues around the Adverse Effect Wage Rate and how that’s calculated and how unfair it is to farmers.”
According to Kran, Farm Bureau continues to actively urge the Senate to approve an agricultural guestworker bill.
“Any legislation that passes the Senate will need to be bipartisan and meet the 60-vote minimum threshold,” Kran said. “We continue to meet with key Senators who are working on finding a bipartisan solution that best serves farmers across Michigan.”
In the absence of a legislative solution, Farm Bureau continues to look for creative ways to address the industry’s labor challenges and remains engaged on the regulatory and rulemaking front, having commented on several proposals over the past year.
Also, in 2015, Michigan Farm Bureau created the Great Lakes Labor Services, an agency to help farmers navigate the H-2A guestworker program. GLALS has grown to be the largest H-2A contract filer in Michigan.
For more information on GLALS, visit www.greatlakesaglabor.com.
“We do agree that there should be some type of adjustment of status of the current workforce that’s undocumented,” Duvall said.
“Now, how we do that we might agree or disagree. However, it's really important that we have a program put in place that allows foreign workers to come here year-round or seasonally.”