March 3, 2024

COVID-19's Impact on Migrant Workers and the North's Ag Economy

Cultivating Uncertainty
By Todd VanSickle | Oct. 3, 2020

Cherry Bay Orchards president Mark Miezio remembers getting a phone call on Labor Day weekend that he hopes he never receives again.

“It was a very terrifying thing to get that phone call that one of our new workers tested positive for COVID-19,” he said. 

Cherry Bay Orchards holds 4,000 acres throughout the state. Most of the farmland is located near Suttons Bay in Leelanau County, and is largely devoted to cherries, with some apples and pears. The farm depends on a migrant labor force that swells to more than 80 workers during certain seasons. 

“If we have a case or know this pandemic comes through our operation, we need to be ready to shut down,” Miezio said. “We're going to get through it, and I think that was the biggest risk and [reason for] sleepless nights during cherry harvest.” 

Fortunately, Cherry Orchards was well equipped to deal with such a situation. It already had been screening its employees, which may have prevented an outbreak. Workers were also able to continue working in isolated environments.

“We had to get [the man with COVID-19] his own transportation, and we found some projects that he could work on by himself, not around other people,” Miezio said. “We had housing units available that we had set up for this issue.”

The COVID-19 positive employee had been living with four other people in housing provided by the orchard.

“We understood what our protocols were,” Miezio said. “The one gentleman had a 10-day isolation. And the other people that were living with him had 14 days of isolation after their last interaction with him.” 

The president said the quarantine recently ended, and none of the workers are showing any symptoms.

According to Bob Wheaton of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the state does not track migrant COVID-19 cases specifically. 

“I am not aware of any comprehensive accounting of positive tests just for migrant workers,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty and confusion for the agricultural industry, with the economic fate of migrant workers hanging in the balance and farmers left to incur costs and navigate through the evolving executive orders. 

“Year to date, we are about $54,000 or more for COVID-related costs,” the orchard president said. “I just know those numbers because we just finished some of that accounting work.”

Cherry Bay Orchards, however, fared well. Not only did its COVID-positive employee recover, it had protections in place that successfully prevented the virus’ spread among its vital employees. It also received a $50,000 State of Michigan grant to help offset costs related to the pandemic. Not all agricultural businesses have been so lucky — or proactive.

Wheaton said the state is trying to do its part where it can. Migrant Program Specialists have distributed facemasks and COVID-19 information to migrant workers and their families, as well as PPE kits purchased through donations by the Regional Migrant Resource Councils.  The staff has also worked to enable COVID-19 testing of agricultural workers as well as to provide supportive services to those workers who test positive. 

It is estimated that more than 60,000 migrant workers are needed throughout the year to support Michigan businesses in a variety of industries. About 25,000 of those migrant workers are needed in agriculture, according to Wheaton.

“The number of U.S. workers migrating to work in Michigan is down compared to previous years,” said Elyse Walter of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth.  

Most migrant farmworkers come from “supply states” that are identified by the U.S. Department of Labor. The five supply states and territories identified are Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, and Puerto Rico.

Yet Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia are among the top 10 states with the most COVID-19 cases. (California leads the way with 800,273 cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

U.S. migrant workers generally stay for the duration of the season, with some workers arriving as early as February to begin the planting season and staying as late as mid-November, often transitioning from farm to farm as the harvest season goes on. The average stays for migrant workers range from four months to nine months, while foreign workers typically stay for shorter periods — generally 30–120 days, but some staying up to 10 months.

However, effective August 19, 2020, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security issued an emergency rule change allowing agricultural employers to submit a petition to the USDOL requesting a temporary extension of stay for H-2A workers, an effort which could extend their H-2A temporary employment visas up to 3 years. 

Of course, navigating through the laws and evolving executive orders can be time-consuming and challenging for farmers and migrant workers who are already dealing with demanding deadlines and production schedules.   

“There's been so much legislation and stuff, it's kind of tough to figure out exactly where you fall into some of these things,” Miezio said. 

Arlene Resource Management is a family owned-and-operated farm labor contractor that handles the red tape for farmers who need migrant workers. It has partnered with several farms in Michigan, assisting them with the H-2A program, which allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.

The management company also provides transportation, training, housing, and now compliance work related to COVID-19 executive orders. 

“We are focused on compliance with the new order,” Arlene Resource Management Manager Beth VanDrie said. “Michigan has stricter laws than most states. It’s kind of been up to us, with a little bit of help from [Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development], to navigate with trying to figure out what exactly the order is dictating.”

She added that Arlene Resource Management is located in Manton and works hand-in-hand with Dutchman Farms, a longtime Christmas tree grower also located in Manton.

Together, Dutchman Farms and Arlene Resource Management have a combined 485 migrant workers. To date, none of the workers have tested positive for COVID-19, said VanDrie. After a worker tests negative twice, he or she no longer has to be tested, the manager added.

“We're doing what we needs to be done, and it's been protecting the health and well-being of our employees, which is predominantly our goal,” VanDrie said.

“We are fortunate enough to be too large for a local facility to handle so the state stepped in and has been giving us free testing. It's free right now, but we'll see what happens down the line.”

She added that the workers are paid for their time for the testing, but it comes at an expense for the farmers. 

“It's a lot of paperwork on top of trying to get normal agricultural jobs done, which is already a challenge in itself,” VanDrie said. “We need trails on every employee.”

She estimates that the testing alone takes about an hour per person. “We have to stop what we're doing out in the field and pull people off orchards,” said. “Out in the Williamsburg area and the Bear Lake area, from all over the state — we have to make sure that they get tested on the required schedule, which is a loss of production and is expensive. I would say even the paperwork in the office; the time trying to understand the compliance is an expense.”

Although the workers’ health is a priority, VanDrie believes some of the executive orders don’t fully make sense.

“Wearing masks when you are by yourself trimming in a tree field is a little absurd, but we do our best to navigate those orders,” she said.

More concerning is the potential for prices to increase for agriculture goods, VanDrie said.

“I definitely think that the price of agriculture goods is going to keep going up,” she said.

VanDrie explained that a large number of migrant laborers that typically travel from Florida and other states didn't come this year, and farmers are still scrambling for workers. 

“People are more concerned with traveling state to state. Those kinds of workers are just not available this year. So, I think that's going to have a huge impact,” VanDrie said. “We will probably see a lot of fruit left on the trees. We're still having farmers call daily that we are turning down. We just don't have enough human resources to help them.”

At Cherry Bay Orchards, the president said many college students filled the gaps in the beginning of the pandemic when other tourism businesses like restaurants and hotels were not deemed essential and had to remain closed.

“It is not a trend I expect to continue,” he said.

Lewis McColley is the owner of Uncle Bill’s Farm, a 60-acre farm on Elk Lake Road in Williamsburg. The farm mainly grows strawberries, asparagus, peaches, cherries, and plums.

Uncle Bill’s Farm has only about two or three migrant workers; they are contracted through Arlene Resource Management. McColley, who relies heavily on those workers, said he started to worry when they hadn’t arrived for the season at a time when the U.S. and Mexico border was closed. However, he was reassured by VanDrie that they would arrive.

“I think they were a week late. That was in May,” McColley said. “It wasn't as bad as it could have been. It was good that they kept [the border] open, or I would have been out of business. It is just the uncertainty. There's enough uncertainty in farming, and with this thrown into the mix, it just makes it that much more tough.”

McColley said Arlene Resource Management handles all of the protocols put into place by executive orders, which helps alleviate some stress. The management group makes sure other farmers’ migrant housing is compliant but it also has added quarantine housing at their farm in Manton, another way farmers and workers receive safe support.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDARD) typically has three major types of housing inspections. The first is a pre-occupancy/licensure inspection to ensure the housing provider has done due diligence to provide safe and wholesome housing.

The second is a follow-up on the implementation of corrective action plans documenting that the housing provider has made the corrections needed to be in compliance with Part 124 of the public health code.

Third, MDARD conducts occupancy inspections in support of in-season compliance with housing rules. This year, MDARD inspectors are also conducting COVID-19 outreach visits. During these visits, MDARD reviews COVID -19 mitigation plans and postings required under Executive Order 2020-137, and it makes observations of whether or not workers are practicing social distancing and wearing PPE.  

Farmers with Arlene Resource Management signed a contract for their migrant workers prior to the season and before the COVID -19 pandemic hit. An agreed price and term was set, leaving the COVID -19 expenses for things like PPE on the management company this year. VanDrie is hopeful that they will qualify for a grant through the State of Michigan to help off set any expenses.

Cherry Bay Orchard has seen one other silver lining in its business during the pandemic: More people stayed at home baking. 

“There was a resurgence in people baking, and so all of a sudden there was a little bit of a spike in sales,” Miezio said.

As far as the price of agricultural goods rising, he thinks that there are more factors than just COVID-19 protocols. He points to the trade war with China, wildfires out West, and poor weather conditions to name a few.

He is uncertain what the future holds but remains optimistic.

“I hope a vaccine is in place by next year, and our labor force is healthy and ready,” Miezo said. “Also, I hope we get better as a society. That’s a big hope.” 

*Photo above, taken before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, courtesy of Arlene Management.


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