At least one California farmer is expecting a smaller pool of migrant labor in 2017 and invested $600,000 in automated equipment.  

His hedge is based on Donald Trump’s campaign trail promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and to fortify the border.

You can read more on this story on our website of IPTV.org/mtom.

For those operations with *legal* immigrants on their payrolls, getting those farmhands on the land was no easy task. Colleen Bradford Krantz explains in our Cover Story.   

Five years ago, the owners of Michigan-based Leitz Farms found it was becoming harder to find workers to harvest their fruits and vegetables. By 2014, the family-run farm launched a major recruiting effort but still had trouble finding enough manpower.

Fred Leitz, Leitz Farms, Michigan: “We had really good crops, we had good markets, good weather, we could sell everything we produced, and we couldn’t get it out of the fields. We left about 60 acres of tomatoes in the field and when the markets were as good as they were, that was a lot of money...I’d say probably about a million dollars worth of product left in the field.”

Leitz Farms turned to the H-2A visa program for help. The paperwork-heavy labor tool of “last resort” allows seasonal agricultural workers from other countries to work in the U.S. for a limited time. Once the visa expires, the laborers are required to return home.

Leitz is among many who use the federal government pathway to bring labor onto his farm. Experts say that many undocumented immigrants, who had quietly worked for decades at U.S. nurseries and fruit and vegetable farms, have been either reluctant to deal with tighter enforcement, or are aging and no longer want to work in the fields.  Some find work in other industries. Mexico, which had been the primary source of undocumented labor, has experienced a declining birthrate, and their young people appear to be less likely to risk illegally entering the United States for seasonal field work.

Fred Leitz, Leitz Farms, Michigan: “The H-2A program is a last alternative for growers. If you have a good migrant stream or if you have local people who can do the job, that’s what you better to do first.”

The number of temporary agricultural workers requested through the H-2A program has nearly tripled in the past decade, from nearly 51,000 in 2005 to almost 146,000 in 2015.

Adam Kantrovich, Michigan State University Extension, Farm Management Educator: “This is not easy labor and many individuals that reside in the U.S. have found other routes. And those that used to do this: just the same ideal that we want to have things better off for our children…so that idea has pushed following generations to move up as it were from that type of labor to the next step.”

One Florida company brings in nearly 450 H-2A workers to provide labor for the area’s citrus and blueberry producers.

Judy Wertz Strickland, DeSoto Fruit and Harvesting, Arcadia, Florida: “I would not want to go back to try to find what we classify as domestic labor to pick fruit. It would be almost impossible to do that…H-2A is going to cost you a bundle to get in it.… But the one good thing about H-2A is you know you can depend on your labor force from day to day.”

The H-2A program requires farms and agricultural businesses to hire U.S. workers who apply and meet the qualifications. Despite the right to be first in line, owners say few – if any – local residents apply to tackle the labor-intensive jobs. Along with having to fill out a lot of paperwork, employers are required to cover the additional costs of travel, housing and food for each international employee.

Adam Kantrovich, Michigan State University Extension, Farm Management Educator: “The extra costs involved with the H-2A guest worker program are relatively significant: anywhere from 10 to 20 percent more. But they have also said that due to peace of mind – that they know they have the workers that are supposed to arrive at a certain time and have them for a certain period of time – that extra cost is worth it even though it cuts into their margin pretty significantly.”

Leitz Farms, in its second year of using the program, hires about 220 workers to pick and package tomatoes, cucumbers, blueberries, apples and cantaloupe. Most H-2A guest workers stay in the country for two to ten months.

For those he hires on his Michigan farm, the program offers greater income without having to move to the United States permanently. Twenty-four year old Maria Natividad Zamora left Michoacán, Mexico to package tomatoes at Leitz Farms. Zamora says she made three times what she would have made selling clothing at a flea market at home.

Maria Natividad Zamora, H-2A Worker, Mexico: “Yes, you miss your family and all that, but you can also learn. Also, to come alone and to get ahead.”

Five hundred miles away, in West Bend, Iowa, organic grain farmer and egg producer Cory Fehr turned to the H-2A program when he could no longer find enough U.S. workers to help weed certified organic crops by hand.

Cory Fehr, producer, West Bend, Iowa: “Our labor needs really went up as we added more and more acres of organic….We started using farm contractors to hire local people and had a hard time finding people that would consistently show up to work and do a good job. And then three years ago, we were introduced to the H-2A program. And gave that a try and since then we have been increasing our soybean acres and increasing our applicants for H-2A.”

Fehr’s request for H-2A workers from Guatemala was inspired by his connection to a former employee from the Central American nation. The former employee makes a list of those who will, first, be willing to work hard, and second, are facing particularly difficult financial situations.

Cory Fehr, producer, West Bend, Iowa: “It’s a very poor community and this is a way they can better their lives by coming to America and working, getting paid and still being able to go back home and be with their family, versus the people that take the risk of coming illegally. It is dangerous and wrong. So that’s what I like about the program.”

Byron Luis Matom Chavez was among 27 the farm hired in 2016. Chavez says he hopes to return next year because the money he made was significantly more than he would have made in Guatemala.

Byron Luis Matom Chavez, H-2A Worker, Guatemala: “If this opportunity was not there, they would try to come across, to come in like illegally. Because that is the only – the only option - that you can have.”

Fred Leitz, who also is president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said the H-2A program could be improved dramatically.

Fred Leitz, Leitz Farms, Michigan: “We are one of the lead organizations that was telling Congress way back in the 90s: ‘Come on, guys, we’ve got this problem and we need this fixed. We need a good visa program.’ I think H-2A could be improved. First off, it could be moved to USDA… Agriculture has a problem and it’s …now come to a head….They keep talking about building a wall, but you don’t need a wall if you have a good visa program.”

Both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill have acknowledged that even the legal immigration system needs some kind of reform. It is still unclear as to what, if any, change will occur. Until that day arrives, Leitz and Fehr will continue to complete the piles of paperwork required to get enough labor to bring in the harvest.