Leelanau News and Events

An Uncertain Harvest: How Farmers And Ag Workers Are Dealing With COVID-19

By Todd VanSickle | Oct. 5, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty and confusion for the local agricultural industry, with the economic fate of migrant workers hanging in the balance and farmers left to incur costs and navigate evolving executive orders. 

Cherry Bay Orchards President Mark Miezio remembers getting a phone call on Labor Day weekend that he hopes he never receives again.

“It was a very terrifying thing to get that phone call that one of our new workers tested positive for COVID-19,” he says.

Most of Cherry Bay Orchards’ farmland is located near Suttons Bay in Leelanau County, and is largely devoted to cherries, but the farm is also among the largest apple growers in the county. It depends on a migrant labor force that swells to more than 80 workers during certain seasons.

“If we have a case or know this pandemic comes through our operation, we need to be ready to shut down,” Miezio says. “We’re going to get through it, and I think that was the biggest risk and [reason for] sleepless nights during cherry harvest.”

Fortunately, Cherry Orchards was well equipped to deal with such a situation. It already had been screening its employees, which may have prevented an outbreak. Workers were also able to continue working in isolated environments.

“We had to get [the employee with COVID-19] his own transportation, and we found some projects that he could work on by himself, not around other people,” Miezio explains. “We had housing units available that we had set up for this issue.”

The COVID-19 positive employee had been living with four other people in housing provided by the orchard.

“We understood what our protocols were,” Miezio says. “The one gentleman had a 10-day isolation. And the other people that were living with him had 14 days of isolation after their last interaction with him.”

Miezio says the quarantine ended with none of the workers are showing any symptoms.

But he adds, “Labor continues to be a challenge during COVID. This is our seventh apple season we have been bringing in H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers. Due to COVID, any hiccups in the visa application process and ultimately getting the visa means an administrative hold with a 6-to-8-week timeline — the season is over before it is resolved.”

At Cherry Bay Orchards, 26 of the 33 expected H-2A employees arrived, so Miezio and his crews needed to immediately retool their harvest strategies to adjust to fewer workers. 

And examining the direct financial impact of COVID-19, Miezio says that “year to date, we are about $54,000 or more for COVID-related costs. I know those numbers because we just finished some of that accounting work.”

Overall, however, Cherry Bay Orchards fared well. Not only did its COVID-positive employee recover, it had protections in place that successfully prevented the virus’ spread among its vital employees. It also received a $50,000 State of Michigan grant to help offset costs related to the pandemic.

Of course, navigating through the laws and evolving executive orders can be time-consuming and challenging for farmers and migrant workers who are already dealing with demanding deadlines and production schedules.   

One source of assistance: Arlene Resource Management, a family owned-and-operated farm labor contractor based in Manton, that handles the red tape for farmers who need migrant workers. It has partnered with several farms in Michigan, assisting them with the H-2A program, which allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.

The management company also provides transportation, training, housing, and now compliance work related to COVID-19 executive orders. 

“We are focused on compliance with the new order,” Arlene Resource Management Manager Beth VanDrie says. “Michigan has stricter laws than most states. It’s kind of been up to us, with a little bit of help from [Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development], to navigate with trying to figure out what exactly the order is dictating.”

For example, on August 3, 2020 the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) issued a public health order requiring any agricultural employer of migrant or seasonal workers with over 20 employees on-site at a time to provide one-time COVID-19 baseline testing of all workers and testing of all new workers prior to any in-person work.

“It's a lot of paperwork on top of trying to get normal agricultural jobs done, which is already a challenge in itself,” VanDrie says. “We need trails on every employee.”

She estimates that the testing alone takes about an hour per person. “We have to stop what we’re doing out in the field and pull people off orchards,” said. “Out in the Williamsburg area and the Bear Lake area, from all over the state — we have to make sure that they get tested on the required schedule, which is a loss of production and is expensive. I would say even the paperwork in the office; the time trying to understand the compliance is an expense.”

Also concerning is the potential for prices to increase for agriculture goods, VanDrie says. “I definitely think that the price of agriculture goods is going to keep going up.”

VanDrie explains that a large number of migrant laborers that typically travel from Florida and other states didn’t come this year, and farmers are still scrambling for workers. 

Elyse Walter of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth concurs that the number of U.S. workers migrating to work in Michigan is down compared to previous years.

“People are more concerned with traveling state to state. Those kinds of workers are just not available this year. So, I think that’s going to have a huge impact,” VanDrie says. “We will probably see a lot of fruit left on the trees.”

At Cherry Bay Orchards, many college students filled the gaps in the beginning of the pandemic when other tourism businesses like restaurants and hotels were not deemed essential and had to remain closed.

“It is not a trend I expect to continue,” Miezio says.

Cherry Bay Orchards has noted one other silver lining in its business during the pandemic: More people stayed at home baking. 

“There was a resurgence in people baking, and so all of a sudden there was a little bit of a spike in sales,” Miezio says.

As far as the price of agricultural goods rising, he thinks that there are more factors than just COVID-19 protocols. He points to the trade war with China, wildfires out West, and poor weather conditions to name a few.

He is uncertain what the future holds but remains optimistic.

“I hope a vaccine is in place by next year, and our labor force is healthy and ready,” Miezio says. “Also, I hope we get better as a society. That’s a big hope.” 

Find more farmer and ag-insider perspectives in a full version of this story running in this week’s Northern Express, available online or at newsstand locations in 14 counties across northern Michigan.

Photos: Left, taken at Cherry Bay Orchards’ cherry harvest. Right, taken before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, courtesy of Arlene Management.

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