New farm workers coming from Eastern Europe

LANSING — Few people are interested in the hard, dirty toil of farm labor. But hard work is nothing new for some in a transitory lifestyle already long-lived.

Experts from the Michigan Farm Bureau say an influx of farm workers from Eastern Europe seeks those gritty jobs because they’re used to doing them.

Craig Anderson, who manages the agricultural safety and labor services department at the bureau, said an increasing number of workers from that area of the world are finding jobs involving dairy or livestock. Anderson said the increase is unlikely to make up for a feared labor shortage as the agricultural industry struggles to recover from last year’s unseasonable weather and drought.

Sarah Swider, an assistant professor of sociology at Wayne State University, said that while “there’s no doubt that agriculture is dominated by migrant workers from Mexico, Central and Latin America,” the influx of Eastern Europeans comes as no surprise in light of Europe’s economic turmoil.

Swider said most European immigrants have been here longer, are more likely to be established than agricultural workers from south of the border, and are often more skilled, a point echoed by the Farm Bureau. She added that Eastern European workers traditionally gravitate toward construction jobs because of their expertise, but a decline in opportunities in that field likely led them elsewhere.

Limited statistics exist on the ethnicity of agricultural workers from the U.S. Census, said Bruce Weaver, an economic analyst for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget. And there are no statistics on migrant laborers in the state, let alone their ethnicity.

Still, experts like Farm Bureau President Wayne Wood say they’ve seen an increasing number of agricultural workers from that part of the world, propelled by a combination of economic, political and societal reasons.

Anderson said caps on legal immigration, declining interest in farm work, workers’ fear of persecution from states with tough immigration policies and declining birth rates in Mexico all contribute to the farm labor shortage in the state. That means plenty of openings for those willing to labor in the fields, which workers from the Baltic States, Ukraine and Hungary usually hear about by word of mouth, he said.

While experts don’t list specific figures, the increased availability of workers could make a difference for some farmers and growers this year.

“On a local scope it is, and can be, the difference between continuing a business or closing it down,” Anderson said, adding that the 2011 farm labor “barely got us by,” and many may not come back in 2013 if they think there’s no work for them here.

Last year’s drought, early frosts that decimated fruit crops and low interest in farm labor all contributed to a decline in the availability of workers, experts say. Some asparagus farmers also fared poorly due to a short harvest window, said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board in DeWitt.

“The same frosts that almost entirely destroyed the fruit crops were the same frosts that severely injured the asparagus crop,” he said.

Bakker said farmers in southern Michigan are still reeling from the loss, with some in Van Buren and Berrien counties losing half of their crops last year.

Michigan is the third-largest asparagus producer in the nation, growing some 25 million pounds annually, mostly around Hart and Shelby in Oceana County. There’s also a substantial amount grown between South Haven and Benton Harbor, according to the asparagus board.

Farmers grow an average of $15 million worth of the vegetable, though an estimated $5 million was lost last year because of crop damage, according to Bakker.

Farmers and growers typically rely on word of mouth to communicate their need for help, and many fear workers won’t come back. One worried farmer is Hank DeBlouw, who grows eggplant, peppers, cucumbers and pumpkins near Capac, in St. Clair County. Some of his employees have been coming back for years, but he said many aren’t anymore.

“I’ve had a certain bunch coming back each year,” he said. “(But) it’s just diminishing all the time. I’ve got a group of 50 people coming up from the south,” but that isn’t enough, DeBlouw said. He needs about 160 to 180 workers, and last year lost 100 acres of pumpkins because of the drought.

DeBlouw said in the past he paid his workers $7.75 an hour, with a 75 cent bonus if they stayed the entire year. But he said this year he might have to pay them less because of money lost after the drought.

He also laments a lack of interest in farm work.

“You’re not gonna get the people up here. There’s a lot of people out of work, but they cannot work the fields,” he said. “They can’t take that grueling work. Sixty years ago, yeah, but this day and age, you can’t find anyone.”

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