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In over their heads

Upton hears about farmers' weather, labor problems

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SODUS, July 3, 2019 | comments
In over their heads 
Herald Palladium
July 3, 2019

SODUS — Southwest Michigan farmers are struggling to keep their heads above water, and it’s not just because of the wet weather, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton heard Tuesday.

“Number one this year is Mother Nature,” said Sodus farmer Russel Costanza, hosting one of Upton’s farm tour stops. “Weather is one part of the problem. Competing with global imports is another part. It’s not a level playing field.”

Most of the Midwest has seen near-record levels of rain that soaked farm fields, keeping growers from planting corn, soybeans, tomatoes and other items.

 

Costanza said that his farm has seen 34 days of rain since May 1, which means it rained every other day. Out in the fields you can dig down six or eight inches and the hole fills with water in 10 minutes, he said.

Wet conditions affect pollination. “Bees don’t work in the rain,” said Brett Costanza. He said he hasn’t been able to plant his corn along the river for two years because of high water.

Michigan farmers had planted about 63 percent of their planned corn crops and 43 percent of soybeans by June 12, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau. Berrien County farmers were three to four weeks behind in planting tomatoes.

The tomatoes now “have beautiful-looking bushes,” but they have no tomatoes on the plants, said neighboring farmer Fred Leitz, who also grows cucumbers and apples.

Another issue is the cost of farm labor, which is much lower in Mexico than the U.S., the farmers pointed out.

Leitz said they pay workers $13.54 an hour, which climbs to more than $16 when other costs are added in, such as health care. Farmers also pay the transportation and lodging to get migrant workers to their farms and back to Mexico.

The cost for a farm laborer in Mexico is $8 a day, Costanza said, meaning the farmers can produce and sell their crops at a much lower cost.

“We have a work force we can’t afford,” Costanza said.

Other parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement opened up U.S. markets to producers from other countries, putting farmers here further behind, he said.

Leitz said the U.S. share of the tomato market has decreased from 80 to less than 40 percent, even though the country’s per capita consumption of tomatoes has almost doubled.

Less profit means farmers can’t replace equipment or infrastructure, while producers south of the border build greenhouses and warehouses, he noted.

“We’re not price-makers, we’re price-takers....We’re hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” Costanza told Upton. “We’ve given it away to Mexico. We’ve given it away.”

Brett Costanza warned that all Midwest farmers will be sending their products for sale at the same time, creating a “bloodbath on the market.”

Farmers who signed contracts to provide chain stores with a certain amount of produce will have to buy it from other countries to make up the difference, Leitz said. “It’s cheaper to ship it from Brazil than grow it here. People don’t believe it.”

It’s more than a matter of dollars and sense. Costanza said information on suicide prevention is being distributed at farmers’ meetings, and he knows of  dairy farmers who shot or hanged themselves.

Production costs have exceeded produce prices, Leitz said, putting many farmers in a difficult bind. “As growers we hate to walk away. We really hate to walk away.”

Providing a lifeline

 

Upton, who was accompanied by state Sen. Kim LaSata and state Rep. Pauline Wendzel, said he has heard from farmers for months about their situation and seen the evidence.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been before,” said Upton, noting the hard freeze that wiped out most of Michigan’s peach crop, along with the heavy rains.

He pointed to the disaster relief bill, with $3 billion for agriculture, recently signed by President Trump, as one of the life lines offered to farmers. He indicated that there could be a supplemental bill “to sweeten the pot, perhaps.”

The Michigan Legislature last month approved a spending bill that would put $15 million into a state disaster loan program for farmers struggling to plant crops because of the non-stop rain.

The House plan provides the $15 million to help private lenders run the loan program and keep interest rates low for farmers, Wendzel explained in a news release. The state does not provide the loans, so there is no financial risk or liability to the state with this program, she said.

“This bill will provide relief to our local farmers who are facing some of the most adverse weather conditions we have ever seen,” Wendzel said in the release. “Our agricultural industry is the backbone of our state’s livelihood, and I am proud to stand by our farmers.”

Labor issues would be part of the discussion in the next phase of NAFTA, Upton said.

The last farm bill improved crop insurance for fruit growers, Upton said, that provided another life line when the peach crop was damaged this year.

There is one thing that farmers need to have in abundance, Costanza said as he looked over 30 acres of tomato fields.

“If you don’t have faith in this business, you got nothing,” he sa

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