Even before the Coronavirus pandemic hit, farmers on the Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City were already dealing with the one thing they least like to see — uncertainty.
Reduction in export markets, tariffs, an aging farming population, labor shortages, ICE raids… it’s not easy being a farmer these days. If it ever was.
Raul Gomez has a special understanding of these challenges. Today he is managing partner of Third Coast Fruit Company at Wunsch farms on the Old Mission Peninsula and an integral part of the OMP farming community. But his roots are in the migrant labor families who have worked the fields and brought in the harvests.
IPR caught up with Raul back in January to learn some of his unique story.
Raul was only 5 years old when he came to the U.S. from a tiny village in Mexico. His father, who had been working on farms in Georgia and Florida for many years, was legalized under President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty act in 1986. This opened the possibility for Raul’s mother and then Raul to join him.
Tragically, Raul’s father died of a brain tumor just a few years later and life became even more complicated. Working big citrus crops in the south required Raul’s family, led by his mother who didn’t speak English well, to lean on young Raul’s language skills to find housing and transportation on the local economy.
Life changed when Raul and his family moved to northern Michigan. They found work on the Old Mission Peninsula, renting migrant housing from Joshua and Barb Wunsch, long-time cherry and apple farmers. The family connections grew.
Joshua Wunsch encouraged Raul at school and on the farm, coached Raul in track and field (shot put), and eventually would come to introduce Raul as “his son.” Meanwhile, the Wunsch’s son, Isaiah, went to school with Raul and “we became best friends,” Raul recalls.
These family connections “allowed me to enter into a whole other world of relationships with other people, families that had been there for generations. Because I was part of the family,” he says.
At the same time, he acknowledges that he has had more of a ladder to climb. “When I’m meeting certain people, I have to make sure they know I belong here. It helps to plug in that I’m educated. Like this makes me more acceptable,” he chuckles ruefully.
His approach to any instances of racism? Don’t look for it.
“Sometimes I'm at a bar and people ask where I’m from. I say I’m from Old Mission Peninsula — which is what I feel is true. But sometimes people are looking for a different story,” he says.
Josh Wunsch unexpectedly passed away in 2018, leaving operations of Wunsch Farms to the three “siblings,” Isaiah, Adele… and Raul.
Today, Raul sees a number of challenges facing OMP farms. He notes that farmers used to rely on families that would come up from Texas or elsewhere to bring in the harvests. These parents are now aging out.
Their children are better educated and not interested in farm labor. And, compared to his own summers spent working with friends on farms, Raul notes that today kids typically don’t want the work.
As a result, farmers are relying more and more on H2A guest worker visas. Raul notes that it costs $1,800 to bring one worker, not including wages. Because the workers can’t drive, the farmers have a much bigger caretaking role.
Raul believes that ICE activity has also hurts farmers and agriculture. “You know people in those situations, who have worked for 15 or 20 years. And then they just disappear.” It creates fear and frustration.
He recounts one particular story about someone he went to high school with.
“He had gone through the school system and had been in this country for a long time. Married with two children. One day he was deported. So his wife is left to figure things out on her own, as a single parent. She is in the Dreamer program which means she can’t leave the country to visit her husband,” he says. “So she ended up giving up her Dreamer status and moving to Mexico in order to keep the family together.”
He knows many other Dreamers from when he attended Grand Valley State.
“They are trying to get a degree but are uncertain what it will mean,” he says. “Five years down the road, will they be able to work or even be in the country?”
While acknowledging that the future lies in technology and streamlining, Raul is adamant that there are many things that can’t be done by machine.
“We need people to harvest and do the work,” he adds.
Our Global Neighborhood is a weekly show that was put on hold the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s now back, and more stories can be found at here.