In 2020, the asparagus industry was one of Michigan’s first agricultural industries to face the coronavirus pandemic. Michigan’s major asparagus production region, Oceana County, successfully adapted to the rapidly shifting regulations of the pandemic's first months and to a changing market. Then, at the close of the harvest in late May and June, it saw a spike in COVID-19 cases, most linked to a handful of farms and processors.
Health and agriculture officials say the close conditions in the camps where many migrant workers live contributed to the spread, as did the difficulty of keeping sick workers home when not working means going without pay.
Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country, partially due to the state’s robust vegetable and fruit industries. Farm workers in these industries often work and live in close contact with one another, making it particularly difficult to follow guidelines aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
Despite regulations put in place to protect farmworkers, "we’re still seeing outbreaks because the conditions that farmworkers are in are really dangerous,” said Anna Hill, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
Hill sees the enforcement of new regulations and communication both with farmworkers about their rights and with employers and migrant camp operators about their obligations as a major challenge going forward.
“We understand that that is certainly a challenge that is unique to the pandemic," she said, "but it is essential to both preventing outbreaks and to stopping them from spreading even further.”