More than a century ago, 23 Dutch workers traveled from Kalamazoo, Mich. to north-central Ohio to drain a swamp and reveal the potential of the land below.
Bruce Buurma’s great grandfather was among them. His labors earned him four acres of the rich muck soil. It was a resource prized by produce growers and gave rise to a region now known as the salad bowl of Ohio.
Over the years, the Buurma farming enterprise steadily expanded, adding more land and new vegetable crops. It now employs hundreds of seasonal workers. It’s owned by 12 family members. Six more are hoping to become partners.
To do that, the farm must continue to grow. But the supply of labor that has sustained the operation for six generations is drying up. Buurma was short 50 to 60 people this year, forcing him to leave some of his crops unharvested. And he agrees with what has become an axiom among many fruit and vegetable growers.
“We have a choice in this country,” said the Huron County Farm Bureau member. “We’re either going to have to import workers or we’re going to have to import food.”
It’s a claim that has received its fair share of skepticism.
Certainly there can’t be a labor shortage in a county with an 11 percent unemployment rate. Can there?
They Walked Away
In Buurma’s words, he’s tried everything to hire local people.
“They go out there and they don’t last an hour,” he said. “Even though they’re making good money.”
His workers typically earn between $11 to $15 per hour. The best pickers have pulled in more than $1,000 for a week’s labor.
A couple of years ago, he partnered with the county Department of Job and Family Services, which offered to provide him with 25 local workers as part of a job training program.
Of the 15 who showed up, four left after the orientation, he said. And the rest didn’t last long in the field.
“One by one, they all started walking away,” Buurma said. A few did return , but eventually quit before the end of the season. He suspects his company’s mandatory drug testing policy may be keeping others away. He admits it’s hard work, but it’s work he himself has done.
“You can do it, if you’ve got the ambition to do it,” he said.
As few as 20 years ago, a majority of the farm’s workers were locals or families who traveled from Kentucky. Today, Buurma said, 95 percent are migrants, often from Texas or Florida.
Over the same time, the farm has invested heavily in mechanization. However, many of the jobs on the farm and in the sprawling packing plant simply must be done by hand.
Maria Trevino of Harlingen, Texas has spent her summers working on the Buurma farm for the past 35 years.
“If I could come 15 more years, I will,” she said. “I gotta teach my grandkids how to work.”
Indeed, many of her family members have worked alongside her , including her husband, Omero, who came to the farm at the age of 16 and has become a trusted liaison to the migrant employees.
“I take pride in (the farm),” Omero said, describing how he advises the Buurmas on which families to hire and those to avoid. “I don’t know, I just love the place.”
But even migrant workers have become harder to find. That’s despite the fact that the Buurmas provide families with a free two-bedroom apartment during the growing season. Buurma sees two reasons for the decline.
Following a national trend, migrant families are getting smaller, meaning they are bringing fewer people with them.
“There’s just not as many workers in that same core group,” Buurma said.
At the same time, tighter border security has reduced the number of illegal workers, putting documented laborers in higher demand as employers compete for fewer people.
For Buurma, the answer lies in allowing immigrants who have the drive to perform agricultural labor into the country on a temporary basis.
“We need a viable guest worker program,” he said.
Reforming the System
That was the message he recently took with him to Washington D.C. where he joined other Farm Bureau members and business leaders calling for immigration reform.
A workable, affordable and efficient agricultural labor program has been a goal of Farm Bureau for more than a decade, according to Yvonne Lesicko, Ohio Farm Bureau senior director of legislative and regulatory policy.
“Ohio farmers need a guest worker program that has the flexibility of being either on a contract or at-will basis,” she said. “This will allow smaller farmers to coordinate to keep the workers here and move locally between farms as harvest times are staggered.”
In addition, she said Farm Bureau supports a program that is year-round, not just seasonal, that is available to all agricultural sectors, including dairy and livestock production.
Buurma said lawmakers were receptive to his concerns, but there are partisan divides on how to solve the problem.
“There we sit with a Congress that can’t agree. In the meantime, the vegetable and fruit industry in this country is suffering. And if something isn’t done, every day we’re crippled more and more,” he said.
And inaction is simply not an option for this 117-year-old family business.
“We have to order seed, we have to get land prepared, getting ready for the coming season,” Buurma said. “And we don’t know if we’re going to have workers to harvest the crop.”
Words from Washington
Ohio Farm Bureau will continue to engage lawmakers to achieve a workable immigration program for farmers. Here is what a few members of Ohio’s Congressional delegation shared with us.
“Our immigration system is broken, and from talking to farmers in the district, I know that’s especially true for the agricultural community. I welcome any and all ideas on how we secure our border and fix the immigration system.”
– Congressman David Joyce, R
“Comprehensive immigration reform should be seen as another tool in the toolbox of economic development and job creation. Congress must work together across the aisle and get the job done right.”
– Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, D
“We need to replace the H-2A visa program with a program that not only enables our farmers to fill the labor intensive positions that the agriculture community requires but, most importantly, protects the jobs of U.S. citizens and farming communities.”
– Congressman Bill Johnson, R
Visit www.FBactinsider.org to learn more and to tell Congress to fix ag labor.