Growing Michigan Food: Good Agricultural Practices with Migrant labor
By: Jude Barry, Food System Specialist, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems
Immigration is a hot topic in our national news, and is also something that our food system in Michigan currently relies heavily on. The number of migrant workers employed in agriculture in Michigan is not well known, but it is thought that it is anywhere between 35,000-50,000 in a year.
Craig Anderson of Michigan Farm Bureau and Helen Dietrich of Ridgeview Orchards presented at Detroit Food 2017 on a panel discussing the cultivating of equitable labor practices in farming and shared some interesting information about the need for migrant workers in producing our food and the needs the migrant workers themselves have.
The demographics of the farm work force that grows our food in Michigan has changed over the years due to social, economic and political demands. Labor demands for most fruit and vegetable farms in Michigan are seasonal and physically demanding, which has meant that it is increasingly difficult for farmers to find good labor within the US.
“People want year-round work which is less physically demanding,” said Anderson in Detroit. “Agricultural guest workers, people that are working in the US outside of their home country, can work on US farms legally when awarded H2A visas by the US Citizens and Immigration services. It is the responsibility of all employers including farmers to review the paperwork of each individual worker to determine work authorization.”
Helen Dietrich added, “At Ridgeview Orchards we need 200 workers to pack asparagus on May 1, but don’t have work before April 30th or after the asparagus season on July 1. Many people are not looking for a job for just 2 months or less. The domestic migrant seasonal workforce has been very helpful to us over the last few years.” Ridgeview Orchards has other fluctuating labor demands with other crops that they produce and pack for market.
Housing a sudden influx of workers presents its challenges, but is something that the Ridgeview Orchards business takes seriously. The migrant workers receive a wage that is well above minimum wage and in addition receive free basic housing which although basic to accommodate a large number of people, meets worker needs. A typical migrant house is inspected twice a year (as required by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development) and meets fire standards with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. The housing at Ridgeview Orchards has communal bedrooms and kitchen and eating areas, shower facilities, laundry rooms, and maintenance is included. The farm also provides apartments for families, playgrounds, and Helen seeks to provide libraries of books for all ages.
Helen described a number of services that were needed and available for the migrant workers and families. Telamon Corporation is a non-profit organization that helps and supports those in need in local communities, including farm workers. The public school near Ridgeview Orchards offers English as a second language (ESL) classes. Michigan Works provides resources to the farm workers and can direct them to health services including dental and health screenings.
Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country, with nearly 200 significantly marketed crops. To meet the fluctuating labor demands of these crops it has been necessary to employ large numbers of migrant workers. In this panel conversation, Helen Dietrich and Craig Anderson talked about good practices in recruiting this labor and taking care of some of the workforce needs.
The panel on cultivating of equitable labor practices in farming at Detroit Food 2017 was sponsored by the racial equity subcommittee of the Michigan Good Food Steering committee. This group hopes to develop a better understanding of the needs for migrant laborers in Michigan and the needs of migrant laborers, through highlighting those that employ and understand the fair treatment of workers.