CALDWELL, Idaho — As the available labor pool in Southern Idaho continues to shrink, a lot more farmers are turning to the H-2A guest worker program to fill their employment needs.
The number of agricultural producers in Idaho who use H-2A workers could increase significantly in coming years, said Jennifer Uranga, who owns and manages Mountain West Ag Consulting, which specializes in H-2A issues.
Total applications from Idaho agricultural businesses seeking H-2A workers increased 32 percent from fiscal year 2015 to 2017, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. Most of those applications were from Southern Idaho producers.
“I think that number is going to continue to grow,” Uranga said. “I think there is going to be an explosion.”
The only thing stopping that explosion for the moment is a lack of housing in the region, Uranga and farm business managers that use H-2A labor told Capital Press. Businesses that bring in foreign workers under the H-2A program are required to provide them housing.
“If we could get the housing, it would skyrocket,” Uranga said. “There are (farms) that would love to bring in (a lot more) workers but there is just not the housing right now.”
Idaho ranked No. 3 in the nation with 497 total H-2A applications in fiscal year 2016, behind Kentucky (1.125) and Louisiana (799), according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The tight farm labor situation in southern Idaho was a major focus during the Idaho State Horticultural Society’s annual meeting in Nampa last week.
“The No. 1 issue for growers by far is labor,” said University of Idaho fruit researcher and conference organizer Essie Fallahi. “Every year it seems this problem is getting worse.”
The tight labor pool in Southern Idaho is the result of a couple factors, said Chad Henggeler, field manager for Henggeler Packing Co., one of the state’s largest fruit orchards.
The state’s unemployment rate was a historically low 2.8 percent in September and a lot of labor-intensive farm commodities such as wine grapes, fruit, hops and seed crops are produced in the region.
“The labor pool in the last five years has really dried up,” said Henggeler, who brought in 100 H-2A workers this year. “Our only choice is to bring in workers from a foreign country on a worker guest visa.”
The pool of available workers has declined at least 10 percent each of the past four years, said Jamie Mertz, co-owner of Symms Fruit Ranch.
Like Henggeler, Symms turned to the H-2A program two years ago and had about 70 guest workers this year.
“If we didn’t have them, it would be devastating, quite honestly,” Mertz said.
During the horticultural society meeting, farms were encouraged to explore sharing H-2A contracts to reduce costs.
“I think one of the focuses of the future is that we try to work with other commodities and other growers to try to share workers so we can afford to bring them in,” Henggeler said.