On 2,000 acres across three counties, Nick Oomen’s family farm grows crops like asparagus, broccoli, zucchini and cherries.Even with a bountiful harvest, Oomen says he’s not sure how long the fourth-generation business called West Michigan Produce will last. That’s because Oomen and other farmers like him face increased labor costs they say they can’t afford.“We’re scraping through and making such small margins at this point,” he said. “And that’s why we say, look, we’ve got one or two more years of this and we’re just done because we can’t make any money at it anymore.”One reason: Oomen’s farm, based in Hart, on the state’s west side, participates in a federal migrant worker program. Known as the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, it brings in workers to staff their farms during harvesting season — and the price for family farms is rising sharply.Annual cost increases in the program to cover things such as worker wages — the latest hit to family farms battered by low-cost foreign competition and, now, federal policy — are squeezing farmers and their bottom lines. The hourly wage for this year is $18.50 base pay, up from $17.34 in 2023. What the wage will be next year, farmers can’t predict. Then there are other costs farmers must cover for workers, including housing and transportation.
“So we’re really watching what we spend, trying to make the best decisions we can and trying to get as efficient as we can with everything we do,” Oomen said. “If this labor situation doesn’t change, there’s just crops that we’re growing that we just have to stop because we can’t afford to produce them anymore.“I can’t buy my inputs any cheaper than I already am. And nobody wants to pay me any more for what I’m producing. So it’s pretty simple math at that point. If it costs you more to produce it than what you’re getting paid for it, then you probably shouldn’t be producing it anymore.”Farmers are looking for relief. Earlier this year, a federal bill was introduced that would put a temporary freeze on wages in the program through the end of 2025.“Our short-term ask to Congress is just to pause the wage rate increase,” said John Kran, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “Let it stay where it has zero increases, really, because we need to bridge to a time when we have hopefully a Congress that’s willing to tackle the tough issues. This wage rate piece is really just a workforce issue, but unfortunately a lot of times it gets lumped in with the whole polarizing debate about the border or immigration reform. And we’re trying to find that narrower approach to just talk about the wages and the workforce.”Shifting economicsThe H-2A visa program was created in 1986 during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. It is meant to fill the need for seasonal farm labor while also protecting the jobs and wages of American workers.The program isn’t really doing that anymore, according to David Bier, director of immigration studies for the libertarian Cato Institute. There hasn’t been a major overhaul of the program since its creation, but the shifting economics of farm labor have caused it to soar in popularity — especially over the past 15 years.The number of older agricultural workers retiring each year — including U.S. citizens and unauthorized immigrants who have been in the country for decades — has increased recently, Bier said. Farms are turning to the H-2A visa program to fill holes.“Very few U.S. workers are entering agricultural jobs,” Bier said. And that’s especially true for seasonal farm jobs.“It doesn’t make sense for us to be pushing U.S. workers into temporary seasonal jobs over year-round permanent employment. Something that’s three months might be great for a Mexican farm worker, but it isn’t gonna be great for a U.S. worker in the long term.”That economic reality suggests a disconnect in the H-2A visa program. At the core of the program is something called the “adverse effect wage rate.” The AEWR is a minimum wage rate for seasonal workers that, in theory, stops farms from undercutting American workers by offering lower pay to immigrants.The U.S. Department of Labor calculates the amounts regionally based on data collected through federal surveys on farm labor and wages. The rate, in dollars, has followed a similar trajectory to average private sector wages in Michigan since 2008. Private sector wages have increased by about $10, while the AEWR has risen by about $8.50.But in percentage terms, the differences in wage growth are more stark. Private sector wages are up 45%, while the AEWR has jumped 85%. Growth for the AEWR in Michigan has outpaced inflation too, according to Bier.Bier — and farmers across the state — say the rate is too high. It has jumped $3.78 in the last two years alone, driving the first decline in Michigan H-2A workers in over a decade.“I mean, U.S. workers are turning away the jobs at these inflated wage rates, right? So why is DOL then coming in and saying, ‘Well, you can’t hire twice as many workers at a lower wage rate?’ It’s just historical intransigence to making the program as workable as possible for farmers,” Bier said.Farmer and laborer concernsCaleb Herrygers of Herrygers Farms in Hart said farmers’ concerns go beyond the hourly base pay of $18.50. There’s the added cost of fees and providing housing and transportation to workers. He estimates those costs add 65% to the hourly wage.“When a worker goes out at $18.50, he’s actually costing us $30.53 an hour,” he said. “Why it’s beginning to be a real problem on the farms is there’s not the margin to cover that anymore. The price that we’re receiving for produce really has not changed, just even nominally in the last 20 years. We’re selling asparagus for the same dollars per pound than we did 20 years ago, sometimes even less.”The industry is also contending with cheap imports, he said: “Our wage is being set artificially, but we have to sell our product into a free market with no trade barriers. No assistance of any sort. Our question has always been, why are we being forced into the free market on one end, but not on the other end?”Joe Rasch Orchards near Grand Rapids was among farms to increase its use of migrant farm workers through the H-2A program as it watched the pool of domestic farmworkers dwindle.Katie Vargas, manager of Joe Rasch Orchards, said her family’s business began using the program in 2014. After a bad harvest in 2012 due to the weather, many of their regular workers from Florida, Texas and Georgia went elsewhere and didn’t return.“We had a bumper crop in 2013, but not enough people to pick it,” said Vargas, the sixth generation from her family in the business. “And so when we saw how much we lost just based on not having enough labor, we realized we needed to do something different. And so we started in the program with just a small percentage of our workforce coming up through it to kind of supplement who we could secure locally for the positions.”Now the orchard has few domestic workers on site and none for harvesting, Vargas said. It’s solely H-2A workers. At any given time, there might be a group of H-2A workers on the farm for various tasks, depending on the time of year. One group comes up in late February to help with jobs including training trees and cleaning up the orchard. In early September, another group of workers comes for seven weeks for harvesting and another group is hired to pack the apples.There had always been a concern about being able to afford the wages in the program, but they really felt the financial strain around 2019, Vargas said: “It’s not white flag, yellow flag anymore. It’s a red flag. And now we’re to the point where we’re looking at maximum years, like a few years of being able to continue with us.”Closing the business would mean a loss of income for Vargas’ family, the local employees and the workers who regularly work at the farm through the visa program. “We love what we do,” she said. “And we see the value very much in what we do. But I think there comes a point where you just look at it financially, just say, we’ve been holding on for so long. I think there’s a lot of emotion that gets tied in with farming that maybe it takes a little bit longer for us to sit back and say, OK, these are new decisions that we have to make.”It’s not just farmers concerned about the viability of the farms participating in the program. Farmworker Alberto Garcia of Mexico said he wants the farms to be able to continue to afford to bring workers to the United States to work in the fields.For the past 15 years, Garcia, 54, has worked on farms in Michigan each year for six months harvesting crops including asparagus, blueberries and cherries. He and two of his adult sons and brother are currently working in Hart.Garcia says the $18.50 he earns an hour through the visa program far exceeds the roughly $18-$20 a day he would earn for the same work in Mexico. He says he supports putting a freeze on the wages so he can continue to have employment.“If the program continues being like this and gives the opportunity to bring people to better their lives and to help the economy here by bringing people in harvesting or any other labor that is required, I think it’s a good opportunity,” he said. “And I would be OK with freezing it and just keeping it the way that it is. I think a lot of people, you’ll be surprised to know that they will think the same way just as long as they keep on bringing us so we can make that living for our families.”Stalled solutionThere is bipartisan support — in Congress and within Michigan’s congressional delegation — for taking action to rein in the rising AEWR.“I’m hearing from fifth- and sixth-generation farmers that they may only have one or two years left before they are forced to leave the business,” U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, a Michigan Republican, said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing in April.In January, Moolenaar introduced bipartisan legislation, co-sponsored by four other Michigan Republicans and a Democrat, Hillary Scholten of Grand Rapids, that would return the rate to its 2023 level and freeze it there through 2025.Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican, praised the bill. He said it would “ease our producers’ financial burden while ensuring they have access to a reliable workforce necessary to produce the food our nation needs.”Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, meanwhile, has co-sponsored the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act that would also freeze the wage through 2025 and perennially cap annual AEWR growth at 3.25%.It would also establish a pathway to certified agricultural worker status for H-2A workers, which grants legal residency for five and a half years while also guaranteeing reentry to the United States after international travel.


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