Getting foreign agricultural workers to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been as thorny as farmers first anticipated when the U.S. Embassy in Mexico suspended processing routine H-2A visas in Mid-March.
The Snake River Farmers Association assists members in 15 states in applying for more than 4,700 foreign workers annually. This year, it had more than the usual challenges in navigating the government process, Joel Anderson, the association’s executive director, said.
“It’s been an adventure to be sure,” he said.
The number of H-2A workers is down 10% to 15% from normal, about a 5% improvement from the situation in June, he said.
Several members are now in the middle of the application process for harvest workers. In Idaho, those workers will be needed to harvest sugar beets and potatoes, followed by corn, he said.
Most of the foreign workers come from Mexico, and that’s where the association’s focus has been, he said.
“It’s loosening up a little bit but far from getting back to normal,” he said.
The issue is with workers who need an in-person interview. The Mexican Consulate is starting to do those interviews, giving growers hope they’ll have a chance at getting enough of those key players. But workers are still caught in the process and approval is two months out, he said.
The pandemic, however, didn’t negatively affect H-2A applications or positions certified in the third quarter of the federal fiscal year, April 1 through June 30, according to the American Farm Bureau, citing new data from the Labor Department.
The number of H-2A certified positions in the third quarter was up 4% from the same period in 2019, Farm Bureau reported.
The number of positions certified in the third quarter were 86,117, compared with 82,094 during the same period in 2019.
Fiscal year to date there were 224,290, position certified, compared with 206,320 in the same period in fiscal year 2019, Veronica Nigh, Farm Bureau economist, told Capital Press.
The number of applications was a record high for the third quarter at 3,098, an increase of 5% from a year earlier. Applications were up 27% year over year in the second quarter but down 34% in the first quarter.
In addition 96% of applications in the third quarter were processed in a timely manner, resolved 30 days before the start date of need.
Most of the decline for the Snake River Farmers Association is attributable to visa processing challenges, but there are other factors as well, Anderson said.
Members request the number of workers they need in December and January. Some who supply restaurants lost their contracts due to the pandemic and replanted a different crop. Some of them didn’t need as many workers, others left fields fallow and a couple anticipated being able to hire local workers due to unemployment, he said.
“Some (strategies) were successful, some backfired,” he said.
With unemployment the way it’s been, the association’s growers had hoped U.S. workers would be eager to take agricultural jobs, he said.
“But members are seeing fewer U.S. applicants than previous years despite unemployment,” he said.
They can usually rely on a few to do some harvest work, but they can’t even get those workers this year. The sources they normally go to say fewer people are showing any interest at all, he said.