By Ron Cammel | The Grand Rapids Press
Growing up on Grand Rapids’ West Side, Jerry Link never imagined working on a farm.
But after 10 years in tool and die work, the 33-year-old is growing crops, feeding cattle and about to become a partner on a large Bowne Township dairy farm.
Occasionally when he’s working his 80th hour of the week he recalls his 9-to-5 life with longing, but mostly he has no regrets taking on a pay cut and “relentless” work that gives him two separate weeks of vacation and rarely a weekend off.
Many people aren't willing to do the hard physical work that Sam Rameno does at Duane Rasch Orchards - picking apples for long hours in the heat. But the pay is better than you expect.
(Cory Olsen | The Grand Rapids Press)
“The thing out here is you have great experiences,” he said. “You work for yourself, for you and your family.”
In the country, the former city boy enjoys the rewarding work of producing food. He is surprised by the “respect, trust and honesty” of others in agriculture. He likes working with family and watching his three children develop a work ethic he believes is a big advantage.
And with unemployment hovering around 9 percent locally and nationally, he has job security.
“Without a doubt – because there are not a lot of other people willing to do what we do out here with the hours we put in,” he said.
Recently an agricultural group started its first-ever push to urge more urban folks to consider jobs in agriculture, where labor shortages often occur despite the secure nature of the work.
“I hear from many individual companies – they need workers,” said James Byrum, president of Michigan Agri-Business Association. “The irony with the unemployment rate is there are jobs 10 to 20 miles from cities. On any given day, we could hire 10 to 20 people statewide.
”The association reported jobs are available from professional, science-based and high-tech positions to marketing to milking cows, planting and harvesting – for people with the right skills and work ethic.
“It used to be kids who grew up on farms were the job pool, but that’s shrinking so we need to look at non-traditional alternatives,” said Byrum, adding that agriculture is growing and remains one of Michigan’s most important industries.
Nearly a quarter of Michigan jobs are agriculture-related, reports Michigan State University. About 10 percent of those are in farming.
The Grand Rapids PressMany people aren't willing to do the hard physical work that Sam Rameno does at Duane Rasch Orchards - picking apples for long hours in the heat. But the pay is better than you expect.An informal Michigan Farm Bureau survey of 265 farmers ages 18 to 35 this year found that 95 percent see themselves as life-long farmers, despite unique challenges.
Perhaps few job-seekers are aware of that type of career longevity.
Vergennes Township fruit grower Duane Rasch said he has experienced a lack of help plenty of times.
“We have enough now, but barely. There’s no surplus, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’m within six weeks of harvest and I have about three-fourths of my help lined up. There’s definitely a scarcity of labor available.
”Rasch isn’t trying to kid anyone. The work is hard physical labor. But he said he pays per fruit picked, and workers make above minimum wage, up to $20 per hour, he said.Without a steady group of Hispanic workers trying to avoid unsettling migrant work, Caledonia Township dairy farmer Jim Good would have a hard time filling about 10 full-time positions, he said.
The jobs require a wide range of skills, he said. Workers need to understand how to keep his 500 milking cows healthy and happy to be productive. Yes, there’s the hauling of manure in all sorts of weather, but the jobs involve operating heavy equipment and monitoring cows for nutrition.
“Not a lot of Americans are applying for the jobs,” Good said.Alpine Township farmer Jim May said jobs in agriculture may be difficult in the beginning, “but stick it out and the benefits are there when you’re older … Come off the high horse. The jobs are out there.”
“What people may not realize is the jobs are good,” said Annie Link, Jerry Link’s wife. “They see long hours and hard, dirty work, but I love my job. It’s rewarding to provide food for my neighbors and family. If people stick with it, they’ll like it.”
In a bigger picture, Adam Kantrovich, a farm management educator at Michigan State University Extension’s Ottawa County office, said the United States might need to import food if more people do not get into agriculture at all levels.
Universities are not concentrating on the issue, he said. Even more critical is a need for high school teachers who can get students interested in the field.
With less than 3 percent of the population producing food, people are so far removed from agriculture that not enough biologists, bankers, lawyers, engineers, veterinarians and economists have knowledge in food production issues to help the industry, Kantrovich said.
“Do we want to rely on the Mideast or Europe or Africa for food and let them charge whatever they want?” he said. “It’s bad enough now. Just think if we can’t produce our own food.”Job seekers may want to try agcareers.com, MSU Extension offices or MSU’s Department of Animal Science for referrals and listings.
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