H-2A. It’s an ag business nightmare, even in an industry where labor is the foremost ongoing concern. The federal foreign temporary ag workers visa program is cumbersome, botched and broken. When the topic comes up in polite conversation, men cry, women scream, and children cover their eyes and ears.
As a journalist, it’s easy to tell who employs H-2A labor and who doesn’t. At non-H-2A farms, when workers see a camera in the fields, they either pull bandanas up over their faces or flee for the woods.
“The challenges are very real when you’re talking about workforce. We’re continuing to be short and it’s getting worse,” said Lisa Lochridge, Director of Public Affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. “We have a very broken H-2A visa program that is the only tool in our toolbox. Our challenge is to continue to try to work towards a program that will meet the needs of… ag and give our growers a steady workforce. That’s really a food security issue. People don’t think about it that way, but we’re either going to be bringing our workers in from other countries or bringing our food in from those countries.”
But there are some growers and shippers who have found ways to make H-2A work. They all agree it is a burdensome process, but a necessary evil they’ve learned to live with until something better comes along – if something better comes along.
In 1952, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which first introduced the H-2 category for temporary unskilled workers. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 subdivided that into H-2A for temporary agricultural workers and H-2B for everybody else. While H-2B has limits on the number of annual visas that can be issued, H-2A is uncapped. Since the 1986 law (theoretically) increased border security and immigration enforcement, H-2A was intended to offset the ensuing decline in the illegal immigrant population.
That did not happen, obviously, and politicians have continued to kick the immigration can down the road for the last 30 years.
President Donald Trump’s campaign platform promised stepped up enforcement of illegal immigration issues and subsequent deportations. Days after taking office, Trump signed executive orders to tighten U.S. borders and step up deportations.
The results could prove disastrous for agriculture. Illegal immigrant labor is the produce industry’s worst-kept secret. Everybody knows illegals are everywhere and that the industry could not operate without them.
H-2A Visa Numbers Have Skyrocketed Over the Last 20 Years
“I live in a nice little Republican enclave in South Carolina,” former Kroger Vice President of Produce Reggie Griffin has said. Griffin outlines the dilemma to neighbors who favor deportation by explaining that illegal immigrant labor is a necessity “unless you want to pay $8 for a clamshell of strawberries.”
Five years ago, growers in Georgia and Alabama watched helplessly as more than $500 million worth of produce rotted in the fields because there was no available labor for harvest. Both states had passed stringent anti-illegal immigrant legislation. Both quickly rescinded those laws. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal hastily implemented a program giving probationers offsets in their sentences in exchange for time spent as farm laborers. While the initial response was strong, within days all of the ex-convict labor had walked off the job, preferring a return to their original probation agreements to hard labor on farms and in packinghouses.
It’s no wonder that the number of H-2A visas issues annually has skyrocketed for the last 20 years. In 1997, there were 16,011 ag workers in the U.S. on H-2A visas. A decade later the number had jumped to 50,791. Last year, it’s estimated that 140,000 H-2A visas were issued. The vast majority of those workers have come from Mexico since the program was established.
With Trump apparently planning to keep his campaign promises, increased scrutiny of agricultural operations seems imminent. Which means growers and shippers had best get used to dealing with H-2A, broken or not.
H-2A workers must be paid the same rates as U.S. citizens would be. The employer is responsible for housing, food, transportation and tools. Employers don’t just have to worry about those costs – the H-2A program is so confounding additional personnel are required just to keep track.
Growers Find Ways to Make H-2A Work
“Is it difficult to do? Absolutely. Is it cumbersome? Absolutely. Is it expensive? Very much so,” said Walt Dasher of G & R Farms in Glennville, GA. “The expense is one thing, but it’s the sheer magnitude of details that have to be done with it, its borderline overwhelming.”
“You have to hire somebody to do it,” said Bo Herndon of L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms in Lyons, GA. “I have two girls who do nothing but keep up with my labor.”
Still, it beats any of several alternatives. One is not to grow. Another is not to harvest. A third is to get caught using illegal immigrant labor and face the music.
Dasher and Herndon are both Vidalia onion growers; both got involved in the H-2A program years ago, as did other Vidalia growers after the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (now broken into three separate entities within the Department of Homeland Security) started paying close attention to the famous onion deal.
“We had a couple of years where INS paid a lot of growers a visit. It was evidence to us that the handwriting was on the wall,” Dasher said. “We can’t plant the kind of acres that we plant and just hope we have enough show up that are legal to harvest. So we did our homework, got with an advisor on H-2A and jumped into it headfirst. There is sense of relief knowing if we request 150 workers we’re going to get somewhat close to that. We won’t always get 150 but we’ll typically get 135-140.”
It’s hard to put a price on that kind of peace of mind.
The Rules Are Constantly Changing
“When you’re dealing with commodities and you’ve got to have labor to survive, you’re always going to worry about it,” said Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA.
In 1998, Norman Park, GA-based Southern Valley first took part in the H-2A program to make sure its mammoth Georgia vegetable crop and a smaller Tennessee deal gets harvested.
“That was a huge upfront cost for us, but because of the size and scope of the farm we needed that dependable labor source,” said Katie Murray, who handles public relations for the company.
“We just couldn’t get the labor we needed – you could get 20, 25, 30 people but you couldn’t get it consistently,” said Joe Baker of Norman Park greens grower Baker Farms, which first took part in H-2A in 1994 and now brings in 250-275 workers annually. “We’ve got a group of guys that have been coming for 20 years and their families have almost become part of our families because they come back year after year after year. H-2A is a battle, it’s always battle and its always going to be battle. But for us it’s worth the cost because we have labor pretty much year round.”
The good news is, like most things, dealing with H-2A gets easier with time.
Said Herndon, “We were one of the first ones in Georgia to get in the H-2A program, there were probably six or seven of us. We just bit the bullet and started working with it. It comes pretty easy now because we know how to work it.”
“Every year they get better and better at knowing what has to be done and by what time because they know what to do now,” Murray said. “But those rules are constantly changing.”
Said Bland, “If you don’t have the right [administrative] people that know what they’re doing you can get in trouble with it in about two seconds – your people don’t show up or you’ve got problems with the paperwork all the time. It’s a continuous challenge.”
There is no magic bullet that will fix H-2A or make the immigration issue go away. Politicians have kept their heads in the sand on the topic for decades, knowing if they avoid the issue long enough they’ll leave office and dump the problem on someone else. It remains to be seen if Trump has the wherewithal to continue to confront the issue head-on.
So, same as always, farmers are left to fend for themselves and make the most of whatever tools are at hand.
“It’s almost to the point that you’re going to have H-2A or you’re not going to farm,” Herndon said. “If people want to eat, they’re going to have to figure out the labor situation.”