Oct 5, 2017Grower finishes 17 years of labor advocacy in capital
For the better part of two decades, tomato grower Fred Leitz has regularly left the family farm in Sodus, Michigan to advocate in the nation’s capital for reform of agricultural labor laws.
Leitz this spring recently stepped down as chairman of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), taking a reduced role in his advocacy efforts.
“I was happy about that,” he said. “I’m glad to be just a board member again.”
At his farm on a day in mid-August, Leitz ran a forklift, staging pallets of boxes outside a fresh packing facility on the farm, trying to keep up with tomato-sorting equipment and crews packing vine-ripened tomatoes into boxes stamped with the farm brand, None Better.
He and his three brothers are the fourth-generation operators of Leitz Farms, which cultivates about 700 acres of cucumbers, cantaloupe, blueberries, apples and a variety of tomatoes – round, Roma, and grape. Fifth-generation family members are working on the farm.
Leitz has held a number of positions on the NCAE board since 2005 – secretary, treasurer and vice president. A highlight early during his two-year tenure as president was allowing the organization to move its office back into the District of Columbia, a few blocks from the Capitol.
Leitz has been going to Washington, D.C., four to six times a year since 2000 and has seen a range of executive approaches and legislative action during that time.
During the early trips, it was just to alert officials to a serious and growing problem finding legal help.
“We knew we had a labor supply that was illegal,” Leitz said. “They looked at us and said, ‘Just fill out the I-9s (employment eligibility verification forms), and use them.’ And then after 9/11, it was like, ‘We need to know who’s in our country.’”
In the early 2000s, the George W. Bush administration proposed new labor laws and created a guest-worker program, but “political will wasn’t there,” Leitz said. Failing that, Bush tried to make the existing H-2A visa program more useable for growers.
“We didn’t jump in at that time,” Leitz said. It was predicted that the next administration would enforce the laws differently. The Obama administration interpreted the law differently, and the rules changed again. Labor shortages were common in 2012-2013.
The Leitz brothers made their jump into the H-2A program in 2015 when the Michigan Farm Bureau started Great Lakes Agricultural Labor Services.
“That was the first year in a long time that I could sleep well at night, knowing that I had some people there to work for me the next day and they wouldn’t leave during the middle of the night and go somewhere else – and I didn’t have to worry about immigration and customs enforcement coming and taking them,” Fred Leitz said.
Leitz estimates the farm’s labor costs come out to about $16 an hour for visas, temporary housing costs, visits to the store and laundromat.
On the whole, the program is working well for the growers, but Leitz said there are drawbacks. At the same time that he’s required to guarantee his H-2A workers 75 percent of the wages in their contract (known as the “three-fourths guarantee”), he also must consider and hire any eligible U.S. worker who applies up until the end of the first half of that contract period (known as the “50 percent rule”). Estimating the correct amount of H-2A labor needed is vital, and so are many other matters associated with the program.
Leitz recommends that any grower using more than a dozen H-2A workers should have a staff member designated for handling that program – for a large operation, it could be about 50 percent of the individual’s workload.
After numerous trips to the Capitol, Leitz is still skeptic of Congress’ ability to deliver a legislative fix for the agricultural labor problem. Some in Congress “get it” – but the issue is politically charged and difficult to handle. “Congress knows our issue, they just haven’t wanted to do anything about it,” he said.
A time for transition
NCAE is seeing more than a few changes this year. As past president Fred Leitz steps down, the group has changed the officers’ titles.
Joseph Young of New England Apple Council has been named chairman of the group, Jon DeVaney of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association has been named vice-chairman, Michael Lalich of Low Country Labor has been named treasurer and Diane Kurrle of USApple has been named secretary.
The organization also is searching for a new CEO following the planned departure of Frank Gasperini, who is also a columnist for Fruit Growers News.
— Stephen Kloosterman, assistant editor