The changing labor landscape: How will farms survive?

As labor supplies tighten and change, farmers are looking for ways to “think outside of the box” when it comes to labor and labor management.

Following the 2012 disaster in tree fruit crops that required far fewer migrant laborers, and the continued wait on immigration reform at the federal level, farmers in Michigan are concerned about a changing labor landscape. Growers depend on a reliable labor pool of workers that normally come back to a specific farm year after year, and after last season, growers are wondering if workers will return following a year with no crop.

In 2010, immigrants made up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 16 percent of the labor force, [immigrants includes naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, temporary migrants (including H-1B workers and students), refugees, asylum seekers and, to the extent to which they are counted, unauthorized immigrants]. In 1970, the proportion of immigrants in both the general population as well as the labor force was five percent. Since that time, there has been a substantial overall growth in immigrants, but since 2000, most of the growth in immigrant contribution to the workforce came in the first half of the decade when immigrants represented 67.7 percent of the labor force. From 2005-2010, the immigrant contribution to labor force growth shrunk to 41.5 percent.

Industries, such as agriculture, that are reliant on immigrant labor (over 20 percent of the workforce employed in agriculture is immigrant labor) are certainly affected by decreased growth in the immigrant workforce. This decreased growth coupled with the lack of need for immigrant labor in 2012 have resulted in area growers facing a changing labor landscape and the need to reposition agriculture in the current labor market.

Growers are looking at how they can more efficiently work with Michigan agencies that help them connect with migrant labor, how they might better use more local labor, how they can improve the way they manage labor and how they can position their farms to be attractive to migrant labor. Growers also face all of these challenges with the need to be efficient with their resources on the farm as well as remain in compliance with all the legal requirements.

Michigan State University Extension is working with growers in this important area of their business. The 2013 efforts began with the Growing Michigan Agriculture Conference on Jan. 24 which included a talk by Dr. Bernie Erven, Professor Emeritus of the The Ohio State University. Dr. Erven’s presentation on “Recruiting, Hiring and Keeping Topnotch Labor” is available on the Michigan State University Extension website, Click on “Agriculture” and look for “Growing Michigan Agriculture Proceedings” in the Resource channel in the lower right section of the site.

MSU Extension is also conducting a number of Agriculture Labor Programs across the state in the coming months. The first of those programs is being held at the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Station on Feb. 20, 2013 from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

At this program, growers will be challenged by MSU Extension, Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Workforce Development Agency, Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement, and local grower speakers to “Think outside the box” in the labor management area, while assuring labor law compliance.

For more information on the Feb. 20 program and to register, please contact the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Station at 231-946-1510. Registration cost of the program is $10 and will include lunch. This program is also being financially supported by a donation from Cherry Republic to the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Foundation.

Look for information on additional MSU Extension agriculture labor programs in Michigan in the weeks to come, or contact Stan Moore.

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