Michigan farmers address worker shortage with visa program

In this Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 photo, Bartolo Trejo sorts grape tomatoes at Leitz Farms in Sodus, Mich. Leitz Farms is among the growing number of Southwest Michigan farms taking part in the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. (Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP)

SODUS, Mich. — The thought of a worker shortage has Fred Leitz worried.

Seasonal migrant workers are a necessity for farmers across Michigan who spend most of the year tending to the ground and about five months picking the fruits of their labor. A lot of fruit crops need to be handled and harvested at the right time, or else growers risk them turning to mush.

Leitz tends to 700 acres of apples, cucumbers, cantaloupe, blueberries and — his biggest crop — tomatoes, alongside his three brothers. Over time at the Sodus farm, he and his family began to notice a decrease in the number of workers who returned for each harvest.

The problem became so bad in 2013, Leitz said they left about 25 percent of the harvest in the field because it couldn’t be picked fast enough.

“The produce just rots in the field if we don’t get enough help,” Leitz told The Herald-Palladium . “In 2013, we had very good markets, good quality and good quantity in the field. That’s the trifecta that every farmer wants. Unfortunately, we had to cut our acreage back.

“It takes a lot to grow an acre of cucumbers. You get into the $4,000- to $6,000-per-acre range to pick anything.”

Fearing the worst, Leitz began to apply for H-2A temporary agricultural workers in 2015.

Under the federal H-2A program, farmers are required to advertise in local newspapers for job openings before accepting foreign workers. Farmers must pay for transportation to and from the foreign country, and provide housing and meals.

The H-2A program was created in the 1990s to help agricultural employers bring temporary foreign workers into the United States to do seasonal work that domestic workers could not or were not willing to do. The H-2A visa holders live and work in the U.S. for several months at a time — but they are not considered immigrants — and the program is not seen as a pathway to citizenship.

There are no limitations on the number of temporary workers that may be admitted into the U.S. However, the program can prove costly to farmers.

Growers must also agree to pay a specified wage. In Michigan, it’s set at $12.75 an hour for 2017. When all expenses are figured in, Leitz estimates workers cost about $17 an hour.

“It’s alleviated our labor issue,” Leitz said. “But it’s a program of last resort.”

Leitz has been involved in agricultural labor issues since he was 25. Finding enough workers has become a bigger problem since the turn of the century.

Workers began to age out and the Mexico-U.S. border began to tighten even more. With no new workers coming across the border, the H-2A program grew in popularity.