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Farmers and farmworkers grapple with keeping food supply open while keeping workers safe

Migrant workers, USDA, farmers
“This pandemic is just on top of all of the other health hazards that they face," said Teresa Hendricks with Migrant Legal Aid.";

The further we get into growing season, the more complex life becomes for Michigan's farmers and farmworkers. They're trying to plant and harvest at a time when the world is moving in slow-motion, if at all. 

Fred Leitz and his brothers run Leitz Farms, a fourth generation operation growing blueberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, and apples in Sodus Township, near Benton Harbor. Leitz said they’re doing all they can to maintain a safe working environment, from having employees wear masks out in the fields to sanitizing high-touch surfaces on the bus that brings workers to and from the farm.

"We haven't had anything close in the packing sheds or anything, none of that's going on for at least a month,” Leitz said. “At that point we'll make sure we'll be providing face masks a couple times a day and trying to distance the best we can.”  

With safety precautions in place for his workers, Leitz said his biggest concern right now is being able to sell his products once they’re harvested. 

“I'm more worried about markets and market conditions during that time because we do a lot of wholesale to institutional type people that go to the restaurants and the casinos and schools and stuff like that,” Leitz said. 

While employers like Leitz are taking a stringent approach to safety, according to Teresa Hendricks, director and senior litigator of Migrant Legal Aid, many farms lack consistent safety measures. She said lately her office has been flooded with phone calls from worried migrant workers. 

"At this point, before the season has really even gotten started, I'm mentally drained. I'm overwhelmed, and I'm exhausted,” Hendricks said. “We have so many phone calls, and the people that are calling are scared out of their minds like I've never seen in 24 years that I've been doing this.”

Hendricks said farms’ responses to COVID-19 have been varied, which could be because those that are not enforcing new safety guidelines are not facing “true consequences.” The primary concerns she’s heard from migrant workers are about protecting their families and keeping their jobs. 

“They're worried about anyone bringing home the illness to the children or to the in-laws or to the elderly people living in their household,” Hendricks said. “They just don't know where to turn to, and they're too afraid to lose their job to report, even when there's an outbreak or a lax of safety protocol."  

Like Leitz, Hendricks is also concerned about this year’s produce market. She said that even farms that are complying with efforts to control the COVID-19 outbreak are likely to have difficulty getting their production out.

"I think we could be in a catastrophic situation where we're looking at half the amount of produce that we usually come up with,” Hendricks said. 

This article was written by production assitant, Lia Baldori. 

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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