Farm Bureau 'waving flag' on labor shortage

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, D.C., April 21, 2016 - The head of the American Farm Bureau Federation says agricultural producers across the country need to “wave a flag” to alert government officials to a possible crisis caused by delays in processing visas for foreign workers who tend and harvest America's food crops.

AFBF President Zippy Duvall was joined by farmers and state agricultural officials from California, Georgia, Massachusetts and Michigan today in a bid to call attention to the problem with the H-2A visa program, which they say could result in abandoned crops, higher consumer prices for fruit and vegetables as well as economic harm to rural communities.

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“These crops are not going to wait,” Duvall told reporters during a briefing at AFBF headquarters in Washington. “They are going to continue to mature and rot in the field if we don't do something.”

Duvall said an informal survey of farm bureaus across the country revealed labor shortages in more than 20 states. And the participants in the briefing blamed the problem on delays by the Department of Labor and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in processing H-2A visa applications, which allow foreign nationals entry into the U.S. for temporary or seasonal work.

Farmers depend on the H-2A program to fill gaps in the nation's ag labor system, but, Duvall said, the program is far from perfect. Processing and procedural delays, such as the government's use of U.S. mail -- “snail mail,” he said -- instead of electronic communications, are leading to losses from unharvested crops.

“The H-2A system needs to be brought into the 21st century,” Duvall said. The government agencies may need more cash to update their computer systems, or possibly more seasonal personnel to handle the growing number of applications being filed, he said. So far this year, AFBF said, farmers have requested just over 68,000 H-2A positions, already more than they sought during the entire year of 2006.

Helping Duvall make his case, either at the briefing or via a phone connection, were Gary Black, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture; Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; Ed Davidian, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, and farmers Bill Brim from Georgia, Carlos Castaneda from California and Jen Costanza from Michigan. Each of the farmers described the challenges they face with securing adequate workers to tend and harvest this year's crops.

Castaneda said that California farmers may not have felt the labor shortage as badly last year as they do now because of drought, which cut deeply into production. But, this year, with the drought easing somewhat, farmers can't harvest all the crops they have planted. Some farmers are giving up more than a quarter of their crops, the said.

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“I don't believe there's a rock we haven't turned over looking for an answer,” he said.

Ed Davidian, president of the Massachusetts farm bureau, said the situation is not just hurting farmers, but also people living in nearby communities. Phoning in his comments, Davidian said delays in processing applications for H-2A workers on his 150-acre fruit and vegetable farm are jeopardizing the jobs of up to 50 other people that he usually employs seasonally, working in roadside stands and other related operations. The foreign workers - he needs three for spring planting and another three for harvesting - are absolutely necessary, he said.

“Nobody here in Massachusetts is going to work in the fields,” he said, “absolutely nobody.”

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