State looks to improve migrant farm labor housing

Several West Michigan members land spots on advisory board.
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Some West Michigan agricultural leaders were recently appointed to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s (MDARD) Migrant Labor Housing Advisory Board.

The 14-member board now includes Evangelina Alvarez, Kalamazoo; William Groenink, Holland; Joann Hoganson, Walker; and Dorian Slaybod, Grand Rapids. 

The board is tasked with advising the department and the state on ways to alleviate obstacles in the development of adequate migrant labor housing throughout Michigan and improve conditions for the workers, according to MDARD.

“Even during stable and predictable years, the number and complexity of challenges surrounding migrant labor housing can be quite overwhelming,” said Gary McDowell, MDARD director. “Natural disasters, urban sprawl, social and political shifts, climate change, out-of-state competition, and now even pandemics take these complexities to a whole new level. A shortage of migrant labor housing can easily lead to the devastation of an entire farm — thousands of acres of high-quality produce can literally die on the vine. This new board will help us navigate a rapidly changing world and keep Michigan a national leader in the food and agriculture industry.”

According to Jim Johnson, the director of the environmental stewardship division at MDARD, over 90,000 migrant farmworkers and their families come to Michigan each year. After they’ve worked in the southern states, they gradually migrate north in the warmer months.

Agriculture is the state’s second largest industry.

Johnson said migrant farmworkers arrive in Michigan around April or May and start with harvesting crops like asparagus and end in the fall with apples. They plant, cultivate, harvest, pack and help to process fruits and vegetables like blueberries, cherries, strawberries, melons, raspberries, squash, soybeans, tomatoes, potatoes, corn and beets, among other crops.

The vast majority of migrant workers work on the western side of the state where apples, cherries, blueberries, squash, zucchini, asparagus, cherries and peaches are grown.

Johnson said one of the challenges Michigan is facing is the lack of farmworker housing in rural areas, which impedes their ability to hire entry-level workers and it slows food processing and food operations.

There is a Migrant Labor Housing Program, which has approximately 870 licensed housing sites or migrant housing labor camps, including 4,000 living units with a capacity of 23,000. Licenses are required for housing sites when five or more migrant workers are living in a unit.

“Obviously, this is something that we’d like to get our arms around,” Johnson said. “When we are only doing (23,000) and there are over 90,000 people coming to the state, there are some questions about where are the rest of those folks? How are they living? Where are they living? Is there quality housing?”

Along with licensed housing units, some farmers are leasing homes while they are working in the state and others are living in farmer-owned housing. 

Alvarez, who is the public policy coordinator for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Kalamazoo, said there is a need for new housing because they want to ensure that all migrants and seasonal workers and their families can receive the proper accommodations and are not denied employment due to the lack of housing.

In the Michigan Food and Agriculture Housing Task Force Report that was released in January, Slaybod and Alvarez emphasized the need for affordable off-farm housing options for migrant farmworkers because the seasonal nature of farmworker jobs does not allow migrant farmworkers to sign traditional 12-month leases. They often must leave Michigan when Michigan’s growing season ends in order to follow employment opportunities in the southern part of the country.

Alvarez said SunRISE Apartments in Carleton is Michigan’s only active nonprofit, nonfarm that is dedicated to the agriculture housing community. According to the report, SunRISE provides 22 income-adjusted apartments for rent to farmworkers. The seasonal farm labor apartments are open in April and they are closed after the end of the growing season in November. The apartments are available and are maintained only for farmworkers.

“One of the concerns for farmworkers is that when they work for their landlords, there is a real risk that they are going to be fired and evicted on the same day,” said Slaybod, an attorney at Farmworker Legal Services in Grand Rapids. “We see that a lot. So, a place like SunRISE provides more housing security.”

Johnson said the other concern is the quality of migrant labor housing in Michigan. Along with being responsible for issuing the licenses for migrant housing sites, MDARD also is responsible for inspecting the housing.

“Our aim here is to ensure food and worker health safety in migrant housing,” he said. “We have to make sure that the plumbing works properly, the electricity works properly, there is the proper number of windows in the building, there is a screen door at the front door because these people are here during the summertime. We have to make sure the septic system is functioning properly, there is drinkable water and bathing water and proper washing facilities. There is a whole host of things that we look at. All the things that are basic necessities for anybody who is living a period of time in one location.”

While they already know some of the challenges that migrant labor housing poses, the 14-member advisory board has a five-year term so members will have more time to decide what is working and what isn’t, then make recommendations to improve accommodations.

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