H-2A guestworker

An H-2A guestworker clips stems while harvesting Fuji apples in Washington state. More than a quarter-million guestworkers are used for a wide variety of farm tasks across the nation, including planting and pruning in the spring.

U.S. farmers who rely on workers from Mexico are growing anxious over the coronavirus’ impact on border crossings after the U.S. Embassy in Mexico last week suspended processing of routine visas.

The U.S. State Department and USDA quickly announced they would prioritize the processing of visas for returning H-2A workers from Mexico. But farmers worry if that will be enough or if there will be further obstacles to incoming workers at a critical time for pruning, planting and harvesting of winter crops.

South Carolina peach farmer Chalmers Carr has been relying on foreign workers for 22 years. Last year, the number of those workers peaked at 817, he said during a conference call hosted by American Farm Bureau Federation.

The H-2A worker is very important to his farm, he said. “And it is to our industry in the Southeast … as every commercial peach operator is an H-2A user.”

He currently has 390 H-2A workers on his farm with 68 en route from the Mexico border. Those workers account for only 55% of his needs.

“This is a critical time of year where crops are going into the ground,” he said.

In addition to peaches, he also grows bell peppers and broccoli, he said.

“So if these crops are not planted in a timely manner, then it’s going to have a ripple effect all the way through the supply chain,” he said.

On the peach side, he has enough workers to prune the trees now and thin the crop ahead.

“But with the current numbers we have, there is no way that we’d be able to harvest and pack our crop, not even at 50% of our crop level,” he said.

His peach harvest starts about May 10 and continues through the first of September, and it’s the same for every peach grower in Georgia and South Carolina.

If anything were to happen with the border closing between now and May 19, he would have to make decisions on walking away from crops in the field that are either planted or permanent, he said.

Farmers in the southwest corner of Arizona supply the vast majority of the U.S. and Canada with winter vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower, John Boelts, a produce farmer in the area, said.

Many vegetable crops grown across the country have a very short window for harvest. Crops such as iceberg or romaine lettuce only have a four to five day window, he said.

Farmers in his area rely on 3,000 to 8,000 H-2A workers a year. Across the country, that number is in the hundreds of thousands, and farmers are concerned with the ongoing ability to have adequate H-2A workers.

“We’ve been increasingly dependent on using H-2A program to fill the gaps that we lack due to Congress not taking action over the last three decades to improve our labor laws and our immigration laws so that agriculture would have an adequate work force,” he said.

The coronavirus is adding another level of uncertainty for farmers like Boelts and Carr.

U.S. agriculture depends on more than a quarter-million H-2A workers every years, with 93% coming from Mexico, said Zippy Duvall, Farm Bureau president.

“Bottom line is, guys, we’ve got to fix this problem. If we don’t we’re going to face another shock several months from now down the road,” he said.

Farm Bureau is engaged with the administration, including the White House, the State Department and USDA, he said.

“We’re going to make sure that our farmers get workers that they need … for the supply chain to remain open,” he said.

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