I’m in the midst of the application process for H-2A workers for our greenhouse business here in Northwest Missouri. If I’m successful, we’ll be able to hire foreign workers who will travel here on a temporary work visa. 

We’ve been hiring workers for our small business since 1986 or so. All of them have been from the local area. Our first employee was a blessing, working for us for 20 years, always the best at whatever job she tackled. 

We’ve hired a lot of people since then, some a net benefit to our business, others not, including the driver we hired to pilot the pickup truck we used to deliver our flowers. It had a large box on the back, extending a couple of feet over the cab.  She lasted one day as a driver, a rather unfortunate incident with the over the cab box and a drive-through restaurant ending her driving career. She stayed with us for a couple of decades, but declined the opportunity to drive after that first day. We had one group of workers who headed for the windbreak out behind the office each noon hour to have a quick smoke. It was a sign of our naïveté that we didn’t realize what they were smoking until the next spring, when we had a beautiful crop of volunteer cannabis growing amongst the pine trees. One young man left work one day with some of our tools, never to return.

One year, we had two sisters working for us, sisters whose brother happened to be on trial for murder just across the state line in Nebraska. Every day at lunch the sisters reported on the trial to the workforce at Hurst Greenery, We all listened intently. (He was found guilty, is still, as far as I know, on death row, and the crime was portrayed in the movie Girls Don’t Cry. I am not making this up.) 

Despite our adventures in Human Resources, we’ve always been able to find enough help to get the job done. Until this year, when the week before Mother’s Day, our busiest time of the year, only three of the ten people we had hired showed up for work. It is time to try something new.

There are lawyers who will fill out your H-2A application. They charge mucho dinero for the work. If we had hired someone to fill out the application, the final cost would have been a significant portion of our yearly profit. So, December being the slowest time of the year, both in the greenhouse and on the farm, I decided to tackle the challenge of negotiating the rules around temporary visas.  I’ve so far dealt with Missouri’s employment agency and the U.S Department of Labor. Before I’m done I will have spent time with the U.S. Department of State. There may be some other government agencies involved, for all I know. 

I’m doing the work online. My apparent strategy, as I didn’t really plan this, is to bury them in a blizzard of paperwork. At one time, I had 11 different cases open on their website. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t the correct way to proceed, but I can’t negotiate the website well enough to  find where I left off on my previous visit, and, before you know it, I’ve opened another case. The Department of Labor is surely as confused as I am. If I keep it up, I’m convinced they’ll give me what I want just so I’ll go away.

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I’ve progressed far enough to have started receiving applications from foreign workers.  I’ve had applicants from Central America, Mexico, Brazil, and, strangely enough, one phone call from Germany. Some of the applications are in Spanish. My wife Julie has mastered enough Spanish from Duolingo to help me through those emails. It has been an eye-opening experience.  The applicants are almost all extremely well qualified. In fact, several of them are more qualified to work here than I am.  I had one conversation with a young man from Brazil, who speaks Portuguese, Spanish, and English.  He’s a college graduate who has held several skilled jobs in Brazil. I told him he was wildly overqualified. He replied that he needed the work.

If it's not clear by now, I know almost nothing about temporary visas or the crisis at our border. I do know this. We are not unique, and what was once a problem of vegetable growers and orchards is now endemic to all of agriculture. We need a solution in agriculture that recognizes that foreign workers will play a larger role in the future than they have in the past. By the way, this is not necessarily bad news for the workers we used to hire. Almost every one of the people who have worked for us has secured year-round employment, which we can’t offer. They’re working indoors, away from the extreme cold and heat that are a part of the working day in a greenhouse. I’m happy for them. 

I also know that, despite its problems, the U.S. economy is a miracle. The people who have applied for work at our greenhouse are promising to move to a foreign country, live in a small apartment, and spend long hours at a job that is hard physical work. Their circumstances must be worse than any we Americans can imagine. To be born in the United States is to win life’s lottery, and my resolution for the coming year, and all the years after that, is to never forget to be grateful for that good fortune.

Blake Hurst is a farmer and greenhouse grower in Northwest Missouri.

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