Early Michigan Spring Leaves Field Workers Underemployed

BY Rebecca Jacobson  August 14, 2012 at 5:15 PM EST

For 26 years, Pedro and Juana Francisco have pruned trees and picked cherries, apricots, peaches and apples at Northern Michigan’s King Orchards farm. The job has provided them with a reliable income, enough to buy a house and help support their three grown children.

But this year, due to unusual weather patterns in Michigan, they lost seven weeks worth of work. Spring arrived five and a half weeks early, delivering unseasonable 80 degree temperatures in March. Fruit trees burst into bloom. But in the following two months, 19 frost events hit the region and killed the budding fruit.

These weather events were devastating for John King, owner of King Orchards. This year, he harvested 16,000 pounds of sweet cherries, down from the 200,000 pounds he harvests during a typical summer. He had no tart cherries, no apricots, and he’s hoping he can bring in 32,000 bushels of apples this fall; that’s only about 35% of his normal apple crop.

In July, King hired the Franciscos back to harvest the few sweet cherries he had, but he was forced to cut their weekly hours down by 30 percent. Pedro Francisco estimates he has lost a third of his pay this season, and he’s worried that he won’t be able to make his mortgage.

The 1 million hired farm workers in the United States represent less than 1% of all wage and salary workers. But they are invaluable to Michigan farmers, whose fruit and vegetable crops require manual labor for maintenance and harvest. A study by Michigan State University in 2006 said that Michigan employs 45,000 seasonal and migrant workers every year, some of whom travel from Texas and Florida.

Don Gregory, co-owner of Cherry Bay Orchards, one of the largest cherry producers in the state, was forced to call loyal workers who he’d employed for years and tell them he had no work for them.

“That was tough, because I’m not sure what they’ll all be able to do,” Gregory said. “We’ve said, ‘Don’t spend your money driving north, thinking that you’re going to have a job.’”

Other workers received no such warning and are now stranded without work, housing or money. Mollie Schweppe, director of the Michigan Department of Human Services‘ Office of Migrant Affairs said that the state has provided $172,000 for emergency housing for the workers and their families, and they are working with local charities, churches and food banks to provide them with other necessities. Some farmers like King have let migrant families stay in their worker housing accommodations while they look for other employment.

It’s not just the failed fruit crop that will leave Michigan field laborers unemployed this year. In southern Michigan, drought has left corn brittle and brown, drying up workers’ hopes for detasseling jobs this August.

Crop loss has been devastating to the field worker community, Schweppe said, and farmers worry that more erratic weather and seasonal shifts in the future will cause more workers to leave the business.

“Availability of a legal workforce is number one on every fruit grower’s problem, number one,” King said. “So it doesn’t matter if we freeze-out. If we can’t manage these fruit trees with the available labor, then we’re still not going to survive.”
PBS NewsHour will have more coverage on the cherry crop failure in Michigan this week. This is a part of our ongoing series “Coping With Climate Change.” Our full report will air on Thursday’s NewsHour broadcast.

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