2016-09-29 / Life in Leelanau

Guest worker program ‘worth it’ to apple, grape growers in county

By Jay Bushen
Of The Enterprise staff


MEMBERS OF the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center (NWMHRC) team pluck apples at the research station in Bingham Township. Pictured from left are Emily Pochubay, Myron Anderson and Karen Powers. 
Photo: NWMHRC MEMBERS OF the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center (NWMHRC) team pluck apples at the research station in Bingham Township. Pictured from left are Emily Pochubay, Myron Anderson and Karen Powers. Photo: NWMHRC To apple farmers Steve and Kathy Kalchik, “help” hasn’t been the same since 2012.

That’s why the Kalchiks recruited four migrant laborers through a federal H-2A guest worker program.

“Twenty-thirteen was the wakeup call for everyone,” Kathy Kalchik said. “It didn’t change in ‘14 and it didn’t change in ‘15. How you get your apples off depends on how you fix your situation. We fix it by saying we won’t go through another year without having enough workers — they just don’t come up this far anymore.”

Workers in states like Florida and Texas have been reluctant to work in Michigan since being turned away in 2012, a devastating year for apples.

The Kalchiks, who are currently harvesting 30 acres of fruit-bearing apple trees in Northport, chose to pay up for guaranteed help this year.

The additional payroll and paperwork have been tedious, but the reinforcements have been welcome. The four laborers arrived from Mexico in May and will be here through October.

“What we’re talking about already is getting two, three or four more just for apple harvest next year,” Kathy said. “A lot of people are doing the same thing. They don’t have work to keep them busy all summer but, when apples start, we need more bodies.”

Yet, despite what appears to be a record apple crop in Michigan this year, Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center Coordinator Nikki Rothwell said she hasn’t heard that local growers are short on help.

Rothwell said growers in other parts of the state could use a hand, but that hasn’t been the case here.

“I know there’s people that are short, but we’re sitting pretty good at the moment,” said Jim Bardenhagen, who is relying on a three-person team to pick Honeycrisps and Galas this week at his five-and-a-half-acre orchard in Suttons Bay. “I’m hearing there’s a few people on the Old Mission Peninsula that are looking for help, and one guy up in Antrim is looking for 30 people.”

While the H-2A program doesn’t make sense for some small-scale growers, owners of bigger apple orchards have drawn to the program in recent years.

What about grape growers?

Sam Simpson, co-owner of Aurora Cellars, Good Harbor Vineyards, Harbor Hill Vineyard Service and Harbor Hill Fruit Farms, said the vineyard service has a crew of about 15 laborers through the H-2A program.

“We will continue to do it so long as it’s available to us,” Simpson said. “It’s very expensive, but the workers are reliable and good people. They’ve been a pleasure to have on the farm all season. To me, it’s worth the money.”

He said the cost to hire guest workers is about 25 percent more than their domestic counterparts, but the quality of imported labor makes up for the extra expense.

“To me, the most important thing is the people we have are genuinely good people,” Simpson said. “This is a good opportunity for them to make a lot more here than they would at home.

“They take their job very seriously.”

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