Advocacy & Activism, Regulations & Compliance

West Michigan Farm Honored for Treating Migrant Farmers Right

From MLive.com, Matt Vande Bunte, The Grand Rapids Press , 21 Sept 2011.

Wayne Kiel, owner of Blueberry Heritage Farms, was honored with the Good Grower Award.

Wayne Kiel, owner of Blueberry Heritage Farms, was honored with the Good Grower Award. Mark Copier - The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS TOWNSHIP, MI — Pay migrant workers fairly and give them adequate housing, and they will come back year after year, Wayne Kiel said.

That’s how the third-generation Holland-area farmer said he operates Blueberry Heritage Farms, and Migrant Legal Aid has no complaints. The Grand Rapids nonprofit honored Kiel with its first-ever Good Grower Award during its inaugural Harvest of Justice luncheon on Wednesday.

“I’m just doing the things the way they’re supposed to be done,” Kiel said at Robinette’s Apple Haus. “We’ve basically had the same core group (of migrant workers) since 1984.”

That long-standing farm-worker relationship is a sign that Kiel treats migrants, or campesinos, like family, said Teresa Hendricks, executive director of the organization that provides free legal services to migrants, regardless of immigration status. The group, founded in 1974, advocates for fair wages and worker protections, and also provides general legal services and domestic-abuse prevention programs.

Kiel was identified as a model grower because Blueberry Heritage is “surrounded by farms that are the opposite of the way they are,” Hendricks said. He has no mattresses in bathrooms or fraudulent produce scales, as one might find on other farms, for example, Hendricks said.

“If there’s a crew leader that’s abusive, Wayne will step in and correct it,” she said. “He sets an example for his crew leaders on how he wants his crews treated.

“We’ve never had (with Kiel) the kind of problems we’ve had with (other) growers.”

The luncheon raised money for Migrant Legal Aid and awareness of labor conditions in the state’s second-largest industry, because “we want people to be grateful of all the hands that pick the food that they eat every day,” Hendricks said.

“We’re not saying all farmers are bad, but some of them are,” said Mariza Gamez-Garcia, a Migrant Legal Aid attorney. “They’re trying to cut corners.”

Gamez-Garcia was a pre-teen when her family came to work at Blueberry Heritage Farm in 1984. She picked blueberries until she was 19, and many in her extended family still work for Kiel. An uncle is a crew leader.

“Since I’ve been an attorney, (Kiel) hasn’t done anything wrong,” Gamez-Garcia said. “I feel he’s always felt that pressure of my eyes on him.”

In fact, Kiel said he hesitated to accept the award for fear of attracting nitpicking state regulators to his farm.

“I’m sure that I’m going to get beat up, just because they want to,” he said. “Uncle Sam is flat broke and all these government regulators now, all that is is a revenue-enhancement program.

“The cost (of fines) is so high that you might as well do it right.”

Source: MLive.com, “West Michigan farm honored for treating migrant farmers right” by Matt Vande Bunte, The Grand Rapids Press , 21 Sept 2011.

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