SPARTA, MICH. - It was a mild Michigan morning in the area known as "fruit ridge," the land of loamy soil on the western side of the state.
Juan Carlos climbed a ladder and reached toward the ripe Ida Red apples at Steffens Orchard in Sparta. His hands covered by gloves, he carefully placed the fruit in a bag that was strapped to his shoulders.
Carlos, 44, along with his partner Adela Hernandez, 39, are the best pickers in this Orchard. Both can fill upwards of 10 boxes of apples a day; each box holds about 800 pounds of fruit. They'll earn between $17 to $20 per box, on a good day that's about $340 combined.
Apples are big business in Michigan. As the state's most valuable fruit crop, apples brought in $293 million in 2016, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Great Lakes Region. And as the season winds down, getting the crop off the trees is no easy task for the migrant workers who pick them one at a time.
This month, the Trump administration released its immigration plans, reiterating the plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico, and to slash federal funding to cities that declare themselves "sanctuaries" for immigrants. Trump has said that any solution to the issue of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the children of undocumented immigrants, must be linked to funding for a border wall along Mexico.
Juan Gonzalez, 44, picks an Ida Red apple at Steffens Orchard and Market, LLC in Sparta, Mich. on Oct. 6, 2017. Gonzalez has returned to the farm for the past 18 years to harvest apples for the Steffens, who are the fourth generation to operate and manage the farm. (Photo: Andraya Croft, Special to the Free Press)
These moves have caused uncertainty and fear among immigration populations.
Earlier this season Steffens said he scrambled to get workers for his 300 acres. “This year we had zero extra people,” he said. “We had a few new people from blueberries, but there are zero people just showing up.”
For years, labor struggles have been the biggest issue for the apple industry nationwide according to the Virginia-based U.S. Apple Association.
“It’s really all of labor intensive agricultural that has been struggling with this issue probably for a decade. Think produce, think dairy, think anything that can’t be harvested with a combine," said Diane Kurrle, the associations senior vice president.
Harvest workers in the apple industry Kurrle said, support on average 2 to 3 other full time jobs year-round.
"The economic stability of rural communities is really at stake (in the U.S.) also when you think about the domino impact of losing those harvest workers and what that would mean for the community," she said.
For Michigan farmers and workers it's most likely, only the beginning of the tough road ahead.
Michigan ranks fifth in the nation for registered migrant and seasonal farm workers, according to the Michigan Apple Committee (MAC). If the U.S. adopts “enforcement-only immigration reform,” it could result in a 61% decline in fruit production because of fewer workers, MAC reports citing data from the Partnership for a New American Economy.
An American Farm Bureau economic study released in 2014 also citing "enforcement only" puts the dollar value of lost production at $7.6-$15.4 billion dollars.
"It would lead to large enough losses in farm income by the end of a 5-year implementation and adaptation period to trigger large scale restructuring of the sector, higher food prices, and greater dependence on imported products," the study said.
Adela Hernandez, 39, slowly releases her bushel of apples as Juan Gonzalez, 44, carries his bushel to the bin at Steffens Orchard and Market, LLC in Sparta, Mich. on Oct. 6, 2017. "Not only are they fast, but they can pick fast and pick delicately," said Rob Steffens, fourth-generation owner of Steffens Orchard and Market. (Photo: Andraya Croft, Special to the Free Press)
For more than 18 years Carlos and Hernandez, who live most of the year in Florida, have helped insure successful crops at Steffens Orchard. But this year they are working under a cloud. While both say they have the proper documentation to work, they are still afraid.
Through a translator, Juan Carlos said, “with the new president it’s getting harder to travel.” Carlos said he is worried about “driver’s licenses (renewal) and being stopped by the police and being deported.”
During picking season, the couple lives on Steffens' property; they have four children ranging in age from 5 to 15. Their children are American citizens.
Once Michigan's apple season is over, the family will head south to Florida and pick citrus and strawberries. While in Florida, because of the recent hurricanes, Carlos, said there also might be some construction work available.
“They’re skilled,” Steffens said of Carlos and Hernandez. “They pick (the apples) delicately and put it in slowly, all the way in the bag.”
Being skilled at picking means the difference of apples being sold as whole fresh fruit (more money) or being used for juice (less money).
Steffens agrees that immigration reform is needed, but he is in favor of changes that don't hurt U.S. businesses, the economy or people that want to work.
"There’s a population that is stuck. They're not criminals, they are contributing to our economy, they want to follow the law but are unable to," he said "They can’t see their families, they can’t travel, but yet are working. But they’re stuck in a system. It’s a shame."
It’s been 10 years since Concepcion Mendoza has seen her family in Mexico. And, given the U.S. tightening on immigration, Mendoza, 28, through a translator said she doesn’t know if she’ll see them again.
“I’m sad and miss my family,” Mendoza said, while she was picking apples at Steffens Orchard.
While Mendoza said she has the proper documents to work at the farm, she feels she cannot freely cross the border. She and her partner Jose Sanchez have one child together and travel to Michigan and Florida, following the crops. After they pick apples they will go to Florida to pick citrus and/or strawberries.
Sanchez fears he will be stopped by the police while traveling; he was stopped once before, he didn't have a driver's license.
“It’s was 5 years ago, and they let him go because he didn’t have a bad record,” Sanchez said, through a translator.
What many Michigan farmers rely on to fill the shrinking migrant worker population is the H-2A visa program, which allows migrants to find work through government agencies that transport them from Mexico to he U.S.
Of the migrant workers in the state this year, about 6,500 are H-2A workers, said Craig Anderson, of the Michigan Farm Bureau. Nine years ago, there were only 440 in the state.
Some farmers who have not used the program say the reason they don't is because it is expensive, restrictive and cumbersome. To get H-2A workers farmers have to file the necessary paper work several months in advance, predicting their expected crop and the number of workers needed.
But, Kurrle said, that the program is something many farmers are "grateful" to have access to. "Once the workers arrive I’ve never heard anything but positives about the workers that come through this program.”
The migrant worker shortage that is happening in Michigan is happening throughout the country. In fact, Kurrle said Michigan is probably one of the last states to feel the effects.
Programs like the H-2A program, have helped. Dawn Drake, of Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association, said “if that labor (H-2A) was not here we would definitely be in a terrible situation.”
“There would not be enough labor to pick the fruit if we had a regular size crop,” said Drake, the association's general manager. Some farmers, Drake said, wished they had more H-2A labor “because they were expecting some (U.S.) workers to return and they hadn’t.“
To fill his need, Brett Anderson of AB Orchards in Sparta is using the H-2A visa program for the second year. This season he’s got about 20 workers.
“It’s more expensive," said Anderson, "but the security and ability that we will get our crop harvested on time outweighs the cost.”
Anderson estimates it costs an additional 25%-30% to use H-2A workers. He goes through a contractor who does the necessary paperwork, sets up the number of workers, and arranges for their transportation to and from Mexico.
“It’s a legal, efficient and reliable way to get people,” he said.
Pablo Escobedo, 24, supervisor, left, poses for a portrait with his father Pablo Escobedo, crew leader at AB Orchards LLC in Sparta, Mich. on Oct. 6, 2017. (Photo: Andraya Croft, Special to the Free Press)
The benefit to H-2A work, said Pabalo Escobedo, is that it’s reliable work and the job is secured. Escobedo, 23, is a crew leader working for the contractor who arranged for the workers at AB Orchards this season.
“My dad is a crew leader and this is his 2nd year with AB Orchards, and my first,” said Escobedo, who was born and raised in Florida.
“I feel good about H2-A because it helps farmers get their production faster, “ Pablo said. "One of the reasons why we like doing it and we hope they keep providing that program for us to utilize is like my dad as crew leader he likes to bring his people from his hometown (in Mexico),the people see him good.
"When he goes to Mexico and visits, everybody takes him in, they invite for dinner. Why? They are showing appreciation. Because he goes one year and he sees that they don’t have a home. And the next year he sees they are building a home already, the next year he goes the house is already done they have there family they have their home," he said.
The elder Escobedo has been picking apples for 3 years but has been in the crop business for 30 years.
Through a translator, Martin Torrez says he feels good about being an H-2A worker.
“I am able to come pick food that is going to feed people,” says Torrez, 26 of San Luis Potosi, a town in central Mexico. “It’s a big help because it helps his family, not everyone has that privilege."
Two weeks ago, representative Bob Goodlatte (a republican from Virignia) introduced the Agricultural Guestworker Act of 2017 Bill. The new bill aims to "provide American farmers with access to a legal, stable supply of workers, the AG Act creates a new H-2C guest worker program designed to meet the needs of the diverse agriculture industry," according to a Goodlatte press release.
In the U.S. fruit business, the only thing that's certain these days is that the seasons will change. Meanwhile, the apple harvest in Michigan is just about complete. It was a relatively good year, but not one of the state's best.
Rows of apple trees are seen at Schweitzer Orchards in Sparta, Mich. on Oct. 6, 2017. Schweitzer Orchards, a family farm operation manages 18 varieties of apples across 215 acres of land. (Photo: Andraya Croft, Special to the Free Press)
Right about now many migrant workers are heading south. And workers on H-2A visas are on their way back to Mexico or to other pre-arranged jobs.
And the apples? Most of them will sleep in carefully temperature controlled storage so that they can be enjoyed throughout the year.
Decoding the H-2A program
Here’s how the H-2A program works, according to Katie Vargas of Great Lakes Ag Services. The H-2A program allows farmers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign workers into the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs.
- Under the H-2A the employers must provide free housing, free transportation too the work site as well as weekly transportation to the grocery stores, laundry mat (if needed), and to the bank.
- Typically, GLALS estimates the employer cost is $1,500-$1,600 per worker for government filing fees, workers visa, transportation from and back to Mexico.
- The contractor contacts a recruiter in Mexico and they arrange for worker needs and set up appointments at the consulate for vetting interviews.
- Hourly wage in Michigan for H-2A workers is $12.75 per hour with a minimum of 35 hours per week.
- Workers are subject to State and Federal income tax.
- The worker visa during the time period they applied for is good only on the farm that petitioned for it.
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2017 Detroit Free Press