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Some Michigan farmers leaving crops to rot because of labor shortage

Michigan United
Golden Delicious apples lie on the ground beneath a tree in Sparta due to lack of skilled harvesters.

A couple dozen Michigan farmers gathered in Grand Rapids Thursday to again draw attention to a big labor shortage.

They’re calling on Congress to pass legislation that would allow guest workers to get jobs in the U-S without becoming citizens.

Don Coe is a managing partner of Black Star Farms. He grows grapes and cherries in Suttons Bay in Northwest Michigan.

“I think we could get (a guest worker program)  through except that there are ideologues with a post-9-11 mentality whose simple answer is always 'build a fence, throw them out,'” Coe said.

“That’s not based on any economic sense. That’s not based on the historic sense of the development of this country. It’s based upon prejudice and fear only,” he added.

Coe says the worker shortage is costing Michigan farmers a lot of money because some crops are being left to rot in the fields.

Fred Leitz is a fourth-generation farmer in Sodus in southwest Michigan. He says he’s lost about $1 million worth of crops this year because he couldn’t find enough people to harvest the cucumbers, cantaloupes, apples and tomatoes he grows on 1,500 acres.

Other farmers are being selective about which crops they harvest. Some apple growers said they’ve left certain kinds, like Jonathans, go unharvested so that more popular kinds, like Fuji or Honeycrisp, can be picked instead.

He’s been going to Washington, D.C. for 14 years to ask lawmakers to loosen rules for migrant workers.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take in DC really. Unless there’s just so many growers like myself – quit growing and food prices go that high,” Leitz said.

Leitz is worried he could be the last generation on his farm. He considering growing grains like corn that take much less manpower to harvest than the specialty crops he has now.

“I’d like our farm to continue on the way it’s going now but it just can’t,” Leitz said, “We try to make plans two years ahead of time for rotations of crops and stuff and it’s going to be very difficult this year in about a month when we sit down to put the pieces together on really what to do.”

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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