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H-2A worker delays causing concern down on the farm

Reggie Strickland spent a stressful week recently wondering whether he would even be able to get labor to put crops in the ground at his 3,500-acre eastern North Carolina farm growing corn, soybeans, tobacco, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers for pickles.

On March 20 – due to the COVID-19 virus – the U.S. State Department announced it was suspending all nonemergency visa applications for anyone entering the U.S. Ostensibly, the suspension appeared to include agricultural labor.

Strickland, like many U.S. farmers, particularly those growing produce, relies on seasonal immigrant labor under what is known as the federal H-2A program. H-2A allows farm workers from other countries to work here for a nine-month period every year as long as producers can show that there is a shortage of U.S. labor willing and able to do the work.

“I remember receiving an email that said we pretty much would have no workers this year,” says Strickland. “Fortunately, that got everyone in ag who needs this program calling or emailing their representatives,” he says. “We’re glad the administration got some things changed.”

On March 28, the U.S. State Dept. announced that U.S. consulates would expand the group of H-2 applicants who can get visas without an in-person interview. The H-2A visas had previously required that applicants do interviews at a U.S. consulate. The State Department wanted to minimize officials’ in-person exposure to reduce the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Additionally, last week’s announced changes allow H-2A workers who have held visas in the past four years to apply this year without needing an interview. That’s good news for Strickland, who may well use more than 75 H-2A workers from Mexico in 2020 – many of whom return to his farm year after year.

As April began, Strickland had five H-2A workers helping with tillage. By mid-April he hopes another 15 will arrive to begin transplanting tobacco plants from the greenhouse onto 150 acres. Still more, up to 75, will be here in May and June to cut (by hand) the sweet potato sprouts in beds to be transplanted onto 600 acres. Still more work with tobacco, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes will keep most of the workers busy into fall.

“This country would be in a mess without this labor,” says Strickland.

He is correct. And U.S. farms have become more dependent on H-2A the past 15 years. In 2019 about 180,000 farmworkers from other countries worked here under the H-2A program, up from fewer than 50,000 in 2005.

More than half of all these workers are concentrated in five states: North Carolina, Washington, Florida, Georgia, and California. The crops with the largest number of these workers (20% of the total) are apples, tobacco, blueberries, and “fruits.”

The stop and start again in this application process has created a “fairly significant delay” in getting workers here by the time farm operations need them, according to Andrew Jackson, an attorney with Andrew Jackson Law in Clinton, North Carolina, who specializes in helping farms in a number of states navigate the process of getting H-2A labor.

“Workers are going to be late, in many cases, a week to two weeks behind,” says Jackson. He expects the “logjam” of visa applications to ease up after Easter when there is traditionally a slight dip in the number of workers being requested ahead of the next peak in May.

While farms using H-2A workers may have the labor they need, that doesn’t necessarily address the “social distancing” being required to protect them as well as others. 

“You do the best you can do,” says Kim Kornegay LeQuire of Danny Kornegay Farms of Princeton, North Carolina. The Kornegays also grow sweet potatoes along with watermelons, cotton, corn, and soybeans. Their operation has space in their dorms (the H-2A program requires farms to provide housing) for up to 68 workers.

“We have 14 workers here now, so there is plenty of space,” LeQuiresays. “We enforce all guidelines for safety because we are working with produce all the time anyway.”

Strickland says there are some tough realities in making this work, though. “Keeping distancing isn’t impossible,” he says, “but at times may be next to impossible. Their living quarters are just like yours and mine, they are next to each other, and they work together in the greenhouse and in the field. We will do the best we can.”

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