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Labor shortages have midstate farms turning to cumbersome visa program

Written by Rachel McDevitt | May 18, 2018 5:56 AM
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(Photo: Tim Lambert/WITF)

 

(Harrisburg) -- Midstate farms have been plagued by worker shortages over the past several years.

It has some looking to a federal program for help, but such a move comes with its own set of problems.

Mark O'Neill, media and strategic communications director with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said labor shortages have been getting worse over the last five years or so. He said that could be due to a few factors, including the current political climate toward immigrants, which provide much of the country's agricultural labor.

"When there are negative comments in the press around coming into this country for a wide variety of reasons; if people know they're not welcome, then potentially they're not going to come," O'Neill said.

So, some farms are turning to the H-2A visa program, which allows foreign workers to come into the country for seasonal work. Farmers who participate agree to provide transportation, housing, and a set wage.

Chris Baugher, orchard manager at Adams County Nursery, said about 15 years ago he didn't have to worry about finding employees; a few migrant workers would stop in each week looking for a job. 

But he started using the program in 2016 after a particularly bad year.

"I left at least 5,000 bushels of apples go on the ground," Baugher said of the 2015 season.

While Baugher has been happy with the workers, he said the program itself is antiquated, expensive, and full of delays.

He said the program was originally designed to protect American workers, but he can't find people in the U.S. who want to do the work.

"I've hired a handful of locals over the years, and they may last a day or a day-and-a-half picking apples, and then they move on, because it's just such hard, physical labor," Baugher said. 

O'Neill said many farmers complain about the red tape surrounding the visa program, which can lead to workers arriving after the harvest. That means lost crops and lost profits. 

Baugher said farmers don't know if their workers' visas have been approved until a few days before they're needed on site. Then, they have to buy plane tickets at the last minute.

"We could save at least half the price of travel expenses if we just could be assured when they were going to come, and could buy the tickets a month out," Baugher said. 

He has an order for workers to arrive in July, in the hopes they will be approved in time for the August harvest.

Baugher said he wants to see changes that would streamline the application process and guarantee an arrival date for workers.

O'Neill said the Farm Bureau has been pushing for those changes, as well as more comprehensive immigration reform in Washington. 

He said if enough foreign workers aren't able to come into the country to staff Pennsylvania farms, the industry could lose up to $125 million.

"The bottom line question for Americans is, do you want your food produced here in the United States and it's picked by foreign workers?" he said, "Or do you want the food coming from another country where it's picked by foreign workers at more of an expense, and more travel?"

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