Producers of labor-intensive crops face difficult choices due to the dwindling supply of farm workers, says Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA).
And most of the options are not very appealing.
“You might have to scale your operations back drastically. Or you might choose to give up labor-intensive crops. Or you might even have to give up agriculture altogether,” Wicker says.
“Some may very well think it best to jump off the merry-go-round, but many others are stuck on it and can't get off. There are simply not enough legal or illegal workers around that want our farm jobs.”
All this could lead more farmers to re-consider the one method of legally bringing foreign workers to their farms: The federal H-2A guest worker program.
Although it is difficult and expensive, it's proven to work.
“There are obviously challenges in using it, but the program legally allows the farmer a dependable supply of labor, while providing extensive protections to the worker,” says Wicker. “It can be difficult to find any other way to do this.”
He has special insight into the labor question. NCGA provides assistance to its 750 farmer members in participating in the program and in fact is the largest user of the program in this country.
“Our growers as well as our workers want to meet labor needs while complying with the law, and H-2A is the most reliable way to do it.”
But there are a multitude of problems associated with it. “Obtaining workers through this program is expensive, loaded with bureaucracy, and legal problems are frequent,” says Wicker. “But farmers without other options are finding a way to make it work.”
The program is administered by the federal government for the purpose of permitting citizens of other countries to temporarily come to work legally in the U.S.
Employers who wish to use the guest worker program must acquire a labor certification by both the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), and a visa petition approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). The employer must first attempt to recruit U.S. citizens who are willing and able to perform the work they need done.
Once the employer is approved, he must make appointments with the U.S. Consulate for applicants to be interviewed so the H-2A visa may be issued that allows the worker to enter the country and work. The paperwork process takes approximately 60 days.
Immune from arrest
Because H-2A workers have proper paper work documenting their legal presence in the U.S.,they are immune from arrest for immigration status violations while traveling through the states that have recently instituted draconian measures against aliens.
“Worker shortages continue in Alabama and Georgia, in part as a result of the E-Verify laws in those states,” says Wicker.
“The farmers who participate in H-2A know they have a dependable supply of labor, while those who don't are struggling to secure a reliable workforce.”
Tony Ross, a tobacco and soybean/wheat grower near Carthage, N.C., has been obtaining guest workers through NCGA since 1990.
“The H-2A program has been real good to us,” he says. “You just can't find enough local people willing to work in the hot sun here. We work a few local people, but it would be very hard to find as many as we would need to sustain our farm on the scale we need to.”
There have been a few minor improvements in the current H-2A program since it was introduced in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that have made it more palatable. Originally, a farmer had little control over what workers came to his farm.
“Now, we have 'preferred' hiring which allows us to get the same workers from one year to the next,” says Ross. “That means workers who know how we like to do things, and we don't have to retrain every season. That is a big advantage for us.”
In the past, he has sometimes had a problem when a worker would use the program to get across the border and then leave for somewhere else. “But that has not happened in a long time,” he says.
He worries a little that there might be immigration problems for the workers. “What if an employee came here and his visa ran out. Would he have trouble coming back?”
Perhaps the biggest worry is that some force outside of agriculture might pick out the H-2A program as a target. “There is good reason to be concerned about the political side of the program,” says Ross.
“I don’t know what might be around the corner.” If U.S. citizens want farmers to continue to grow safe and abundant labor- intensive crops, then farmers must have access to a more friendly ag worker program, Ross says.
Keeping the workers busy for their whole stay is frequently one of the more daunting aspects of farming with H-2As.
There originally was not much wiggle room in the law, but it has been loosened a little since.
“This was a rigid government program, but we have maximized its flexibility,” says Wicker. “For example, now, when workers finish flue-cured and sweet potato harvest down east, the workers can go west and get in six or seven weeks of Christmas tree harvest if they choose to.
“This allows growers to share the fixed costs, which are expensive. It makes some crops that might not otherwise be feasible to grow feasible to grow. One example might be cucumbers — the only labor intensive time is harvest. By sharing labor, growers can make it work on paper.”
The bottom line: Farmers who have historically avoided H-2A because of the expense and the heavy hand of enforcement agencies are now looking at it again, says Wicker.
“Farmers have concluded that the only thing more expensive than the H-2A labor program is having a bountiful crop ready to harvest and nobody to pick it. There are definitely more farmers considering the H-2A program now.”