Jack Hedin is the owner and operator of Featherstone Farm, a four-season farm in Rushford, Minnesota, that specializes in organic vegetable production. The $1.8 million business employs 15 workers year-round and as many as 35 seasonally, the majority of whom come from Mexico on the H-2A temporary work visa. “That labor is unequivocally necessary to our operation,” Hedin says, explaining that there aren’t enough American-born workers interested in performing this kind of labor. “We do extensive posting in local media to attract local workers, advertising $12.75 an hour plus housing and transportation. We might get a couple of calls.”
Hedin has relied on labor from other countries for at least 10 years, he says, and his colleagues across agriculture have experienced a similar shortage of workers. “Whether dairy farmers, meat processors, cattle handlers — everyone needs the help,” he says. “For our operation, which is fresh-market vegetables, it’s not merely the number of people that we need, but the timely availability of people.” In the unpredictable, four-season climate of Minnesota, the ebb and flow of his labor needs are unpredictable and slots must sometimes be filled at a moment’s notice. “People that do the field work and harvest here are essentially on call 16 hours a day, seven days a week for six months. We have many American-born workers in the field, but we can’t get nearly enough of them.” In Hedin’s congressional district, in southern Minnesota, foreign-born workers account for nearly 7 percent of the agriculture workforce, according to New American Economy research. In fresh-market vegetables, Hedin predicts the percentage is much higher.
They had been with me for eight or 10 years, helped me build a business, and invested years of their lives getting the farm up to scale. And their investment went up in smoke.
Hedin says the H2-A visa program works well for his business, but he stresses that his friends who have farms and operations with a stronger need for year-round labor struggle to find workers. He’d like to see immigration reform that provides a greater number of guest worker programs and a clear path to legalization and citizenship for undocumented residents. “We have to find a way to normalize the people that are working in the shadows,” he says, recounting the loss of four senior-level employees to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Audit in 2013. The four men weren’t deported, but simply flagged and removed from their positions at Featherstone. “They had been with me for eight or 10 years, helped me build a business, and invested years of their lives getting the farm up to scale. And their investment went up in smoke. It’s an outrage. They’ve since gone back to farm in Mexico, which is just another loss for our community.”