When families visit local pick-your-own farms for some summer entertainment and tasty fruits and produce, harvesting crops can be fun in small doses. But, anyone who has frequented a berry patch or sweet corn farm to “pick-your-own” knows that there is a fine line between a fun way to connect with our farm heritage and really hard work. Picking berries for an hour is fun, digging carrots for 8 hours is work — hard, hot, dusty, physically demanding work.
Even the most avid pick-your-own berry patron would think twice about a seasonal job in the fields harvesting vegetables for $10 or $12 an hour. This puts the farmers who produce these crops on a wholesale scale in a tough position to find the necessary dependable labor, even with today’s high unemployment levels.
After their 12 children grew up, Russell Garber and his wife struggled to find adequate labor for their 190-acre vegetable and ornamental crop operation in Darke County many years ago. Initially, local high school students were hired to do the seasonal and intense labor during the growing season.
“In the produce business, you have to have dependable help. When the crop is ready, it’s ready,” Garber said. “When we reached the point in time when we couldn’t find farm boys to help anymore, we started using Mexican help.”
This group of laborers also proved to be undependable so Garber sought help from a local employment office that suggested he consider the H-2A program, which allows foreign workers to work in the United States for a specified period of time.
“This is a way to legally bring in foreign workers,” he said. “If we were going to continue to grow our operation, we had to go that way with labor. We just couldn’t get labor here.”
While an important tool for farmers like Garber, the H-2A Program is not a favorite of unions, labor groups and, depending upon the leadership, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). As a result, farmers who use the H-2A program (including Garber) have been targeted by lawsuits, extensive red tape and mind-numbing regulations. Garber actually is one of the few farmers who fought and won a frivolous lawsuit filed against him involving the H-2A program, though it cost him over $100,000 in legal bills.
The DOL has once again targeted H-2A by reversing a Bush Administration rule that made it easier for farmers to hire temporary or seasonal foreign workers. According to a DOL press release, the new rule announced by U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis will bump up the average pay for temporary farm workers by nearly a dollar per hour. Farmers also will be required to list job openings on a new online job registry, while state workforce agencies must inspect worker housing before employers can hire foreign workers. In addition, an H-2A visa petition cannot be approved unless the DOL certifies that there are not sufficient U.S. workers qualified and available to perform the labor involved in the petition and that the employment of the foreign worker will not have an adverse effect on the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.
The bottom line with the H-2A changes is that it renders the program nearly unusable for farmers or anyone else seeking to hire foreign labor.
“The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is extremely disappointed at the changes to the H-2A program temporary worker program announced today by the Labor Department. The new program will be the most difficult ever for agricultural employers to administer. It also comes at a critical time of economic uncertainty and undoes a number of improvements implemented by the department only a year ago,” said Bob Stallman, AFBF president. “There continues to be a labor shortage in U.S. agriculture and agricultural employers need an efficient, affordable temporary worker program to help put food on Americans’ tables. Even with the slower economy, farm labor remains physically demanding, periodic, all-weather work and it is often impossible for farmers and ranchers to find the workers they need.”
As for the almost 80-year-old Garber, who just paid off the last of his legal bills from his H-2A legal battle that started in 2001, he has little choice but to downsize his operation due to the lack of labor.
“My father worked on the farm until he was 85, and I was not planning on retiring now,” he said. “But the rules are more onerous than ever. I’ve spent 40 years building up this business and in one year they have put me out of business. I will still be growing crops for the local farmers market, but as far as wholesale crops, that’s done. The small- to medium-sized vegetable grower is becoming an endangered species in this country because you can’t find the labor.”
Matt Reese writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and lives in Baltimore, Ohio. For questions or comments, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.