Coronavirus Thins Labor Pool for Farms Who Need International Laborers

Cherry season is coming to a close in Northern Michigan, and local farmers are rallying their troops to get all their apples picked this fall. But this year, they’re worried they might not have enough help.

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Jim Bardenhagen stands in front of his barn and tractor.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into an already variable season. Michigan farmers have had to balance health and safety while trying to recruit and retain foreign labor.

Many local operations rely heavily on laborers from Mexico and beyond, but coronavirus prevented many from coming up for the season. Some workers were nervous to travel, Other farms were nervous to host them because of health concerns, and some workers who did come, arrived later than usual.

For Cherry Bay orchard manager Francis Otto, his crew of seasonal workers, mostly from Mexico, is “vital.”

“We wouldn’t be able to function without them,” said Otto. “Our first group came in a week before the shutdown at the border they got through without an issue.”

Cherry Bay hired H2A visa workers this season. Other farms have had issues staffing.

“Especially the ones that aren’t using the H2A program who are just relying on people coming up, they’ve been having a hard time getting enough people,” said Otto.

The whole issue has a ripple effect on the fruit industry and Cherry Bay Orchards has heard packing facilities may be particularly impacted

“He says they’re really worried especially the packing lines, if they can’t keep a healthy crew running and packing the apples, we won’t be able to move the fruit out into the market place,” said Otto.

Jim Bardenhagen is the patriarch of his family farm which focuses on cherries and apples. He says new rules and executive orders force him to test his workers for coronavirus regularly.

“We’re always concerned about whether our workers will be able to continue to work or will they have to be quarantined,” said Bardenhagen.

He noted that usually, his employees live in on-site housing together, but that aspect has been complicated as he tries to figure out how to house them while maintaining social distance.

Bardenhagen and Otto will start harvesting their acres of apples very soon, and they hope this season will be fruitful.

“I’ve got another 35 [workers] that are supposed to come before apple harvesting, that’s the end of this month and hopefully it goes without a hitch,” said Otto.

Categories: Coronavirus