May 5, 2021Farm labor challenges span decades
The social and economic forces that have contributed to present trends in the agricultural labor situation are likely to continue. As a result, growers will keep responding as in the past, so more mechanization and less reliance on manual labor are in the offing.
The above paragraph was published more than 40 years ago in the January 1980 issue of The Great Lakes Fruit Growers News.
That forecast was made by Michigan State University (MSU) agricultural economist Allen Shapley, a farm labor specialist, before an audience at the Raw Products Conference on Jan. 7, 1980, at the Hilton Inn in Lansing, Michigan. The conference was a joint undertaking of the Michigan Canners and Freezers Association and MSU.
Even in 1980, where possible, growers were cutting back their labor supply or eliminating it altogether, Shapley said, because of the grief involved in maintaining that supply. He said such factors as a welter of government regulations covering just about all facets of farm operation from field work and hiring to worker housing.
In addition, machines are easier to deal with than people, and growers also receive a form of harassment through the negative reaction of the press and biased stories that present farm laborers as subjects of abuse, said Shapely, who later in 1980 submitted his resignation to Gov. William Milliken as chairman of Michigan’s Commission on Agricultural Labor, a post he had held the previous two years.
Shapley took a one-year sabbatical from his MSU position and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he was involved in both study and teaching at the University of British Columbia. He was in an Extension-type program teaching farm business management and farm labor management principles.
In addition, he studied personnel management. At the beginning of the program, he spent quite a bit of time at Vernon, B.C., located in the fruit-growing region of the Okanagan Valley, where he worked with fruit growers as well as the dairy farmers of the area in his specialties.
The Michigan Commission on Agricultural Labor was created by Public Act 354 of 1963.
The commission cooperates with all governmental and private agencies concerned with agricultural labor including, but not limited to migratory labor.
“Even if a machine costs a lot more than the cost of hiring the people, growers will go to the machine anyway, if it is available, simply because of the harassment factor,” Shapley said in his January 1980 presentation.
He said he has talked to hundreds of migrant farm workers traveling various migrant streams, so he has been able to get their opinion on labor conditions in a multitude of states from coast to coast. The consensus of the workers, he said, is that Michigan is the best place to work in, from the standpoint of services available, quality of housing and attitude of employers. Yet despite that, the press is generally ready to portray the migrant situation as one of grower oppression of a downtrodden and exploited group of second-class citizens. In addition, growers get criticism from their fellow church members who have been “fed propaganda” by church-related activist groups involved in farm labor, he said.
Accordingly, Shapley expected growers to continue their use of local laborers in place of migrants whenever possible and where mechanization is not feasible. The trend toward use of locals is amazing, he said. “You now find local women working in asparagus fields. Ten years ago you never would have thought that possible.”
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In addition, blueberry crops are increasingly being handled by high school students, even in the processing steps, Shapley said. Accurate state statistics on the number of seasonal workers compared to migrant workers are not available, but there is evidence that the approximate 10-to-1 ratio of migrants to locals around a decade ago has changed so radically that there are probably more locals employed now than migrant in-season farm labor. With mechanization of more and more crops, Shapley suggested “the market may change even more from fresh to processing. And we’ll probably see some crops eliminated.”
He said the large decrease in the number of peach trees in Michigan over the last few years, and although some of that decline is attributed to the incidence of X-disease and severely frigid weather, growers are also losing interest in peaches because the harvest can’t be mechanized.
Other commodities may become scarce, with prices soaring out of sight but demand possibly holding strong, he said. He cited his own experience in growing a limited crop of raspberries next to his rural home near Mason, Michigan. “I get a dollar a pint for them,” he said. “I don’t know why people would pay that much for them, but the demand is there. That’s what’s happening in raspberries.”
Consumers may also increasingly find their fresh vegetables and fruits available only if they pick them themselves, Shapley said. “The switch to U-pick has been amazing. If you had told me 10 years ago how many U-pick operations there would be by now, I wouldn’t have believed you. But there are a lot more coming.”
Some growers who are committed to a labor supply are turning to personnel management education, and this trend will likely continue, said Shapley, who believed better management techniques with employees can result in greater productivity and less turnover.
Employee relations tips given
A prime example of farm labor management approaches was shared on Jan. 24, 1980, when John and Joan Bintz of Apple Mountain Market, a diversified farm complex in Freeland, near Saginaw, Michigan, spoke at the annual Roadside Marketing and Pick-Your-Own Program held in conjunction with the Great Lakes Vegetable Growers Convention in Lansing, Michigan.
As was reported in the Great Lakes Fruit Growers News, the Bintzes had 200 employees at their operation. “It has been 20 years of trial and error,” Joan Bintz said.
“It’s always a new ballgame as you’re expanding,” John Bintz said. “As you get bigger, you have to have rules and controls.” As a result, they devised a policy manual for the use of each employee. The policy manual is for the protection of both employer and employee, he said.
“You have to fit the right person in the right slot, if you can,” John Bintz said. “Employees are different from one to another. You have to ferret out what the individual is like. Some like just the one job they are trained for and don’t want to be shifted to something else. Others like to move around and go from job to job to give them some variety in their work experience.”
— Gary Pullano, editor; Photo at top: “Employee Selection and Training” was the topic covered by Joan and John Bintz, owners of Apple Mountain Market, Saginaw, during the Roadside Marketing and Pick-Your-Own Program at the Great Lakes Vegetable Growers Annual Convention in Lansing, Michigan, on Jan. 24, 1980. Pictured, from left, are Joan Bintz; District Marketing Agent Glenn Antle of St. Joseph, Michigan, Heidi Bintz, 1979 Michigan Apple Queen who helped her parents, and John Bintz.