Great Lakes Farm Expo starts Tuesday


One of the biggest agricultural industry trade shows in North America happens every December in Grand Rapids, and it starts Tuesday.

Nearly 4,000 attendees will come from 42 states and seven Canadian provinces to the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo, which runs Dec. 9-11 at DeVos Place and Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Described as the ultimate show for fruit and vegetable growers and farm market proprietors in the Midwest and Canada, nearly a third of the growers who plan to attend are from outside Michigan.

Dave Smith, executive director of the Michigan Vegetable Council, said the turnout actually totals more than 6,000 people when counting the staff who represent more than 400 companies that exhibit their farm equipment and products. The show takes up four acres of space in DeVos Place convention center.

The Greenhouse Growers Expo will take place at DeVos Place simultaneously as a show-within-a-show, with one ticket providing admission to both. The Greenhouse Growers show includes a bus tour on Thursday that stops at three of the state’s most prominent greenhouse/garden centers in southwest Michigan. This is the fifth year the Greenhouse Growers show has been part of the Farm Expo.

On Wednesday, the 2015 Michigan Apple Queen will be crowned and the winning Michigan cider producer will be announced during the Michigan Apple Growers’ Luncheon.

Generations of farmers have attended the show in Grand Rapids each year in early December. Originally known as “the Hort Show” — put on by the Michigan State Horticultural Society, the name changed in 2001 when it began to be put on jointly by the Horticultural Society and the Michigan Vegetable Council.

Janet Korn, senior vice president of Experience Grand Rapids, said the Great Lakes Farm Expo might not be the single largest trade show in Grand Rapids each year, but “it’s a big deal because it brings together the economy of agriculture within our community. One thing that makes Grand Rapids distinct is that we are a city that is surrounded by agriculture.”

The Farm Expo this year will offer 69 educational sessions.

There will also be presentations by researchers and extension educators from Michigan State University and other land grant universities and research stations.

Michigan agriculture, particularly the fruit and vegetable growers, has relied heavily for more than 60 years on thousands of migrant workers, primarily Hispanics from Texas, Mexico and Central American countries.

Many migrant workers are no longer able to get over the border into the U.S., which may have contributed to the serious shortage in agricultural labor in Michigan and other states in 2013.

“There were a lot of crops that didn’t get harvested (completely),” said Smith.

The migrant labor issue “will be talked about at the conference,” he added.

The federal government has created the H-2A immigration program to allow U.S. farmers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Smith said a grower from the Suttons Bay area who has used the H-2A program will be on the panel discussion at the Farm Expo.

Smith said the U.S. H-2A program is complicated. “That’s one of the reasons not too many growers have used it,” he said.

The Michigan Vegetable Council has received a grant from the USDA to do a survey this winter of Michigan growers to find out about their experiences with migrant labor in 2014 and to determine if losses are still occurring due to a shortage of migrant farm workers.

“Farmers have to follow the rules” laid down by the federal government, said Smith, but compliance is easier said than done. For example, migrant workers are supposed to show the farmers their official documentation required by the government, but some workers produce false documentation.

It’s not really up to the farmer to determine if a document is false, said Smith.

“The important point is that farmers want an adequate supply of legal labor, and I guess until the immigration issues are resolved, that problem is probably going to continue,” said Smith.

A West Michigan farmer who may be on one of the Farm Expo panels is Ralph Oomen; he is president of the Michigan Vegetable Council board of directors.

“Labor is always an issue,” said Oomen. “There’s always a battle in the way our immigration is set up.”

Smith said it is a known fact that part of the migrant labor force is undocumented.

“But a lot of these people have been in this country a long time — they didn’t just come yesterday. They’ve been doing this work for a long time. It’s necessary work, and in spite of unemployment here, most people in this country don’t want to do the type of work these people do in the fields,” said Smith.

The lack of action by Congress to resolve the legal status of undocumented Hispanics working in the U.S. has led to President Obama announcing his intent to resolve it through presidential executive action. His plan would get an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants started on the road to citizenship by authorizing them to work in the U.S. for three years if they have been here for five years, have children who are U.S. citizens, pass background checks, pay fees and start paying taxes.

“We need immigration reform that addresses these issues for agricultural labor, along with other labor,” said Oomen.

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