Will pandemic prompt guest worker shortage in Leelanau?

Photos (l-r): Cherry Republic owner Bob Sutherland (photo by Taro Yamasaki); Jamaican workers employed by Anderson’s Market in 2017 (photo by Norm Wheeler); Leelanau Fruit manager Ben LaCross (photo by Madeleine Vedel)

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Farmers and retailers in Leelanau County who rely on seasonal migrant and guest workers are sweating through the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home order and worried whether they’ll have enough help once the busy season begins next month.

Cherry Republic has employed guest workers through the J-1 exchange visitor non-immigrant visa program during the past two years. Last year, the Glen Arbor retailer hired 13 J-1 guest workers who hailed from Romania, Turkey, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. The first wave typically arrives by mid-May.

But the global pandemic this spring has closed national borders, slowed processing of visa applications, and all but curtailed airline traffic. Confusing, often contradictory messages from The White House earlier this week left in doubt whether the door is even open for guest workers to legally enter the United States.

Cherry Republic will decide by May 1 whether to pursue guest workers through the J-1 program, said owner Bob Sutherland. An alternative solution would be to hire workers domestically through the website CoolWorks.com. With the national economy in freefall, and millions without work, finding help—albeit for seasonal work—within the United States shouldn’t be difficult.

In the past, Cherry Republic has teamed up with Anderson’s Market to collectively house their guest workers. Three years ago, Anderson’s began employing approximately 12 guest workers per summer season. Leelanau Vacation Rentals and Crystal River Outfitters have also collaborated on guest worker housing. But social distancing orders to slow the spread of COVID-19 could complicate that dormitory-style housing arrangement, even if J-1 guest workers make it to Leelanau County.

Seasonal workers living in RVs might offer a solution. Cherry Republic plans to hire three couples (6 people, total) to work for the summer season who will live in their vehicles at Indigo Bluffs RV Park & Resort near Empire.

Cherry Republic employs 225 workers during peak summer season in Glen Arbor and its packaging plant in Empire.

Picking asparagus in May

Harry Norconk’s asparagus spears will shoot out of the ground next month, and he expects them to be ready for picking on May 10—plus or minus 5 days. Cool weather, followed by an early May warmup, bodes well for the green vegetable.

Norconk is relying on six workers who typically come north from Florida and stay here through the season. As far as he knows, the extended family of workers is healthy, but he worries about them contracting COVID-19 on the long trip north.

Finding a market for his asparagus poses another hurdle this year. Local restaurants typically buy one third of Norconk’s crop, but restaurants are currently closed for everything but curbside pickup. The Empire Asparagus Festival next month has been canceled. A processor, Arbre Farms in Walkerville, Michigan, typically buys another third, but didn’t take it last year.

Norconk has no idea what will happen with roadside purchases. Will coronavirus-wary customers feel comfortable stopping and paying cash at his produce stands on M-72 and at his farm south of Empire? Early indicators out of Oceana County—Michigan’s asparagus capital, two hours south of Leelanau—look grim. According to a story in the Oceana County Press, consumers are opting for frozen asparagus as they choose food with longer shelf lives.

Cherries on the horizon

“I encourage anyone looking for work this summer to work for a local farm. Farms all over Leelanau County will need workers this summer. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping produce the local food supply. It’s a cool, fun summer job.” — Ben LaCross, Leelanau Fruit

Cherry-picking season isn’t until July and August, so Ben LaCross, manager of LaCross Farms and Leelanau Fruit Company, has a little time to wait before making tough workforce decisions.

The Leelanau Fruit processing plant typically employs between 65-85 seasonal workers for a six-week season. Will they be able to travel here, from Georgia, Texas, Florida and Southern Michigan, as they have in the past? What will safe working conditions look like at that point if social distancing is still necessary? These questions are all weighing on LaCross.

“We’ll have to go on with business in the summer, but it won’t be business as usual,” he said. “We’ll need to take extra precautions.”

LaCross added that agriculture has been on the forefront of hygiene awareness when preparing food. But social distancing measures would make the job more difficult.

With unemployment skyrocketing throughout Michigan, LaCross wonders if this is the year that jobless local residents step forward and join the local cherry harvest.

“What’s our tourism industry going to look like?” he asks. “Where are high school kids going to work this summer if restaurants are closed?”

All options are on the table, with an eye on Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home executive order. Will it be phased out or relaxed in May or June?

With extra time on his hands, LaCross is focusing on planning and preparing for the unpredictable season ahead.

“I encourage anyone looking for work this summer to work for a local farm. Farms all over Leelanau County will need workers this summer. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping produce the local food supply. It’s a cool, fun summer job.”

This story was sponsored by Hansen Foods of Suttons Bay