Economic Development, Food Service & Agriculture, and Government

Farmers drive growth engine amid labor shortage

December 6, 2013
| By Pete Daly |
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Farmland value holds under Kent County development rights program
There are 48,000 farm families across Michigan that help drive the state’s $94-billion agriculture industry. Photo via fb.com

Gov. Rick Snyder told a large audience in Grand Rapids this week he supports immigration reform at the federal level — a very hot topic among farmers.

“I’m probably the most pro-immigration governor in the country,” Snyder assured the 800-plus attendees at the annual Michigan Farm Bureau meeting.

Michigan governmental agencies offer to connect farmers with potential seasonal workers who live in Michigan, but farmers insist that Americans in general are not really willing to do the hard work that Mexican migrants will do.

Snyder didn’t dwell on immigration at the MFB convention, but focused on his support for Michigan agriculture in general.

“You’re part of the big three in Michigan,” Snyder said, explaining that agriculture, manufacturing and tourism are the state’s main economic engines.

He said Michigan ag officials estimate the total value of the industry in 2012 was $94 billion.

Snyder said three key areas within agriculture can grow and boost the Michigan economy: research and development, value-added food processing and exports.

He said there was a 10-to-15 percent increase in agricultural exports from Michigan in 2013, and he cited the Chinese people’s love of Michigan blueberries as an example of “opportunities we can build on.”

Labor shortage

The MFB published a report on Nov. 1 titled “Farmers ‘baffled’ as Feds stiff-arm immigration.”

Two farmers from Michigan — a vegetable grower from Allegan County and a fruit grower from Antrim County — were among the Michigan contingent that joined other ag groups in Washington in October to plead in vain for immigration reform that allows migrant workers for agriculture.

The U.S. Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform in June, but it has been ignored by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Berrien County farmer Fred Leitz said he was “probably about 10 percent short right now” in the number of workers needed, according to an August MFB report. Shortly before that, it had been a 50-percent shortage.

In 2012, a disastrous frost killed at least 90 percent of Michigan apples, and many workers arrived here to work and weren’t needed.

Leitz was asked to what extent the unanticipated lack of work last year caused migrant workers to not come this year.

“Not much,” he replied. “I attribute it more to the border being tighter than they think.”

Mexican farm workers were first brought to Michigan during the World War I labor shortage to work in the sugar beet fields in the thumb region, but throughout America today, Mexican immigrants find work in a wide variety of industries, not just agriculture.

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