The number of H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers approved for U.S. farms continues to grow by 20 percent a year, and eventually the need will accelerate and the system will crash, a leading farm spokesman predicts.
The U.S. Department of Labor approved 200,049 H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers for U.S. farms in fiscal year 2017, up 20.7 percent from 165,741 in 2016.
“It’s the kind of growth we expected. It would have been more. If there hadn’t been a late frost and hail in South Carolina and Georgia, it would have been closer to 205,000 or 210,000,” said Frank Gasperini Jr., executive vice president of the National Council for Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C.
“We have a continuing labor shortage and at some point it will reach a steeper incline because workers are getting older and H-2A is the only replacement,” Gasperini said.
“We are not raising up new domestic workers in agriculture, construction, hospitals or hotels. We will have fewer people doing that type of work and with our borders tighter than ever, foreign guestworkers are the only relief valve,” he said.
At some point the system will crash because government agencies are not equipped to handle the increased volume, he said. Agencies are staffed for year-round work, not seasonal peaks, he said.
Mechanization isn’t the total answer because the U.S. grows and exports more food every year, Gasperini said. That will cause, even with increased mechanization, demand for labor to go up, he said.
“As Congress looks at H-2C (to replace H-2A), mandatory E-verify (electronic employment eligibility) and possibly other initiatives, they need to be aware of this growth and make sure government departments responsible for administering these visa programs are ready for the growth. They barely keep up now,” said Kerry Scott, program manager of masLabor, Lovingston, Va., the largest provider of temporary H-2A agricultural and H-2B nonagricultural workers in the nation. The 200,049 H-2A visas authorized by DOL in 2017 was 6,107 fewer than the number requested, according to DOL.
The number of authorized H-2A visas has been increasing by 18 to 20 percent for several years. There were 139,832 H-2A visas approved in 2015, 116,689 in 2014 and 98,821 in 2013, according to DOL. Generally, about 90 percent of those authorizations become actual workers, Gasperini said.
H-2A workers are about 10 percent of the nation’s more than 2 million seasonal ag workers, he said. That’s more than doubled in the last five years, he said. Year-round or permanent ag worker are about another 500,000, he said.
The latest DOL numbers show Florida leading in 2017 H-2A workers at 25,303, up 12.6 percent. Georgia is second at 23,421, up 11.7 percent. North Carolina is third at 20,713, up 10.4 percent.
Washington is fourth at 18,535, up 9.3 percent. California is fifth at 15,232, up 7.6 percent. After that, Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, Michigan and Arizona round out the top 10 states.
“Florida, Washington and Michigan see higher growth because whole crops are starting to shift in a big way to H-2A because of lesser migrant movement,” Gasperini said.
A listing of top 10 employers hiring H-2A workers shows the North Carolina Growers Association No. 1 at 11,947 workers, up 6 percent. The Washington farm labor association WAFLA is No. 2 at 7,134, up 3.6 percent. Fresh Harvest Inc., part of the Scaroni Family of Companies in Heber, Calif., is third at 4,623, up 2.3 percent. Zirkle Fruit Company, Selah, Wash., is fourth at 2,970, up 1.5 percent. Elkhorn Packing Co. LLC, Salinas, Calif., is fifth at 2,653, up 1.3 percent.
The bottom five are headed by Stemilt AgServices LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., sixth at 2,082, up 1 percent. R&R Harvesting Inc., LaBelle, Fla., is seventh at 1,999, up 1 percent. Foothill Packing Inc., also Salinas, Calif., is No. 8 at 1,854, up .9 percent. Peri & Sons Farms Inc., Yerington, Nev., is ninth at 1,739, up .9 percent and Virginia Agricultural Growers Assoc. Inc., is 10th at 1,602, up .8 percent.
A breakdown of 2017 H-2A workers by crops or occupation shows berries No. 1 at 21,946 workers, up 11 percent. Apples is No. 2 at 12,697, up 6.3 percent. Tobacco is third at 12,534, also up 6.3 percent. Fruits and vegetables fourth at 12,465, up 6.2 percent and general farmworkers at 12,037, up 6 percent. That is followed by melons, corn, peppers, sweet potatoes and hay and straw.