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Farmers aren't sure on status of workers

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To make a living, Gregorio visits about 20 farms in Southwest Michigan every year. He has a car, so he often picks up other workers on the way.

“Picking apples, trimming apples, trimming blueberries, picking blueberries, picking peaches.”

Gregorio has lived in Hartford for about 18 years, but his Michigan driver’s license expired a long time ago. That’s why we’re not using his last name. When I asked him if migrants would risk driving all the way to Michigan for work, he said he’s not sure.  

“Maybe this year, no coming. I don’t know.”

Thirty percent of farm workers in the U.S. are citizens. The rest have everything from special visas to no documentation at all. According to the Washington Post, in the first two months of Trump’s presidency, deportations increased by 32 percent compared to the same time period last year. About half of the immigrants arrested had minor traffic offenses, drunk driving charges, or no criminal record. That’s put immigrants and their employers on edge.

At Leduc Farm in Paw Paw, workers prune blueberry bushes on a sunny spring day. Every year the farm hires about 250 migrant workers to harvest its blueberries and strawberries. Farmer Joe Leduc says you can use a machine to pick berries, but you’re likely to get a lot of green or bruised fruit. A machine can’t tell when berries are ripe.

“If you don’t have any hand labor, your volume for fresh is probably one third of what it normally would be.”

Like any other employer, farmers are not allowed to hire undocumented workers. Grand Junction blueberry farmer Art Thomas says, to the best of his knowledge, he doesn’t. In order to prove that they are eligible to work in the United States, there’s a variety of documents that migrant workers can provide. Everything from a passport to a school ID. Thomas says he’s not allowed to tell his workers which ones to bring as proof.

“We’re not document specialists, you can look at them and you say well it appears good to me - I really don’t know. Certainly if it has pink hearts and little ribbons on it, you’re going to say well, that’s probably not legal. But otherwise you look at the documents - they have them, so we hire them.”

Thomas says his workers are paid by the pound, but guaranteed minimum wage. Joe Leduc says he offers about 11 dollars an hour and free housing - but not many locals want the job. It’s a seasonal job and it requires moving with the harvest.

“Nobody likes to move around a lot. So this is a labor force that’s used to it, they’ve done it for decades and it works very well.”

Leduc says the bottom line is: farmers need migrant workers to pick crops. Without them, he says, we could see some Michigan fruit farms go under.

But not everybody sympathizes with farmers. Armando Elenes (elle-N-es) of the United Farm Workers union says many of them supported Trump.

“Sometimes, you know, you get what you voted for, right?”

Even before Trump’s inauguration, demand for farm workers was going up. Since the recession, the number of unauthorized farm workers in the U.S. has fallen by four percent. That raises another issue for growers. Elenes says to keep workers around, farmers will have to make those jobs attractive.

“They’re complaining about the bureaucratic nightmare that they have to go through, they’re complaining about the red tape. What they really mean is: Dammit, I’ve got to offer better wages? You mean I’ve got to offer certain benefits? And we say, yes.”

Philip Martin is professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California-Davis. He says farmers may offer workers benefits - but they’re unlikely to raise wages. More likely, he says, farmers will reluctantly move to more machine labor. That could mean more waste or perhaps a new category of produce.

“Those that are cheaper but none the less might have more damage because they were harvested and handled by machine.”

A labor shortage may also force farmers to hire more legal, but temporary guest workers. But Martin says they’re more expensive - mostly because farmers have to offer free housing. He says growers have fought to remove that requirement from the program.

“So, many farmers have delayed dealing with this.”

Martin estimates that if the U.S. raised all farm worker wages by 40 percent, the cost of produce would go up only about 25 dollars a year per household. With all of this in mind, that might make farmers look stingy. But Martin says produce farmers only get about a third of the price.

“Farmers don’t get much of the retail dollar and farmers don’t give everything they get to farm workers. Maybe people should eat more fruits and vegetables, but the truth is they don’t.”

Farmer Joe Leduc says, whatever happens with immigration, he hopes it won’t damage the country’s economy.

“Yes, we do need a legal workforce. Yes, we need secure borders. Yes we need all the stuff we’re talking about - but we just need to do it in a time frame that it allows everybody to adjust to it.”