Ag Labor: An Old Challenge with New Wrinkles

The story of the agricultural labor shortage is not new. Most everyone in the industry knows it’s impossible to grow fruit without the direct help of a large agriculture workforce to maintain and harvest it.

“This is bar none the issue that keeps the industry awake at night,” says Diane Kurrle, Senior Vice President of the U.S. Apple Association.

There are an estimated 1.5 million seasonal workers involved in labor-intensive agriculture, which includes specialty crops. While it seems immigration enforcement is talked about more than reform, those in agriculture know the truth — without immigration and guest worker reform, the labor crisis is not going to end.

“We’ve been hearing frustrations about ag labor availability for a long time,” says Jason Resnick, Vice President and General Counsel at Western Growers. “There have been labor shortages consistently for a number of years and we hear on average anecdotally, 20% minimum labor shortages or higher.”

Frustrations are running high among growers who hoped to have ag labor reform be a possibility. Currently, the administration has focused on enforcement and not reform.

“One of the concerns is that while labor is already short, we might see less movement of migrant workers than normal,” says Frank Gasperini Jr., Executive Vice President of National Council of Agricultural Employers.
While the challenge remains the same, many in the industry see opportunities to move the need for a reliable stream of ag labor to the forefront of the new administration.

The Challenge
Growers in the past have relied on temporary workers who would follow the crop seasons north. Some say that isn’t happening this year. For Mark Nicholson of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, NY, his apple crop competes for labor with vineyards in the Finger Lakes. He said he was struggling to get his pruning crews up and going.

“There doesn’t seem to be folks coming across the border to work or from southern regions at this point,” he says. “We’re facing probably our most severe shortage that we’ve ever experienced, already starting this season.”

Kerry Scott, Program Manager of MAS Labor, attributes some of the migration issues due to the stability of year-round employment in warm-climate states such as California. He said a lot of the Hispanic farmworkers that were given amnesty by President Reagan in the 1980s are also hanging up their hats.

“Their kids are now doctors, and lawyers, they’re no longer doing entry-level farm work and that’s the beginning of the shortage,” he says.

And it seems unlikely that a similar influx of workers will occur in the future.

While some outside of politics and agriculture believe the answer to the ag labor shortage is simply raising wages, those in agriculture know that notion is a fallacy. In fact, Resnick says raising wages will just lead to more problems.

“You’re not going to bring in any new workers into the labor pool, you’re just going to cannibalize the existing workforce,” he says.

The Current Solution
Nicholson, who struggled to staff his early season orchard tasks, opted to submit an H-2A application to bring in about half the workers he’ll need for harvest.

Most growers who have experience with the H-2A program understand it’s not an easy program to use. The steps necessary to complete an application are frustrating and there can be delays in getting workers on time, often due to processing delays.

“It’s a complex process and it’s expensive,” Scott says. “No one does it because it is fun or cheap, but it is going to allow you to stay in business.”

Many growers liken the H-2A program to having insurance — having the necessary labor to pick the crop when you need it.

“You’re insuring that you’re going to have the amount of labor necessary to pick the crop on time,” says Jon Wyss of Gebbers Farm in Brewster, WA. “It’s a very good insurance program to have.”

Kurrle says H-2A workers only account for about 20% of the ag workforce in the apple industry, which is slightly larger than the 10% of all ag that uses H-2A.

“Growers are increasingly turning to H-2A,” says Robert Guenther Senior Vice President, Public Policy for United Fresh Produce Association. “Its usage is expected to double within the next five years, further burdening an already severely strained system.”

While H-2A’s use is growing, the new administration has been slow to fill auxiliary positions within departments, and a hiring freeze also makes those who use the H-2A program nervous. Nicholson said that was one of the messages he and other growers brought to the attention of policymakers during USApple’s annual fly-in.

“We’re bringing the message that absent comprehensive reform the only way we’re going to get our labor is through the H-2A program,” he says. “They need to be acutely aware of what those problems are that we’ve faced in the past and be ready at a moment’s notice to go to our aid.”

Nicholson says growers were quick to point out to policymakers that Trump Winery in Charlottesville, VA, uses H-2A labor for vineyard tasks.

“We’re hopeful this administration would have a special understanding and interest in making the program work as effectively as it can,” he says.

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