“The people sitting in an office at the Department of Labor don’t understand the nuances of what it takes to run a successful farm,” says Katie Heger. “And that means the regulations they set are cumbersome, untimely, expensive, and lack an understanding of agriculture and our labor needs.” Heger, who co-owns a third-generation family farm with her husband in North Dakota, says her business has been struggling with labor shortages for the past decade—and that the current immigration system is unsuited to addressing these shortages. “We’ve had delays in getting our crops planted, sprayed, and harvested because we can’t get enough workers,” she says.
Heger is quick to dismiss the misconception that immigrants are “stealing” American agriculture jobs. “Farm work requires long days in sometimes harsh weather conditions and has an unpredictable schedule. It is hard work, and most Americans do not want to do it,” she says. Although Heger has tried to hire local workers, advertising in the papers and offering bonuses, she has received a lackluster response. In the past 14 years, only six Americans have applied to work at Heger Farms. “We’ve had no choice but to turn to foreign labor,” Heger says.
Without reform, Heger fears farms like hers will become unable to produce their crops.
All of the foreign workers employed by Heger Farms are from South Africa and come through the H-2A program, which provides work authorization for seasonal agriculture labor. “They are hard workers and eager to learn,” Heger says. “They’ve also become part of our community; they celebrate our holidays with us and [have] become part of our families.” Yet, hiring these foreign workers has become increasingly difficult. “Over the years, the bureaucracy has become more cumbersome and time-consuming—it’s been a nightmare,” Heger says. “We’ve had employees arrive one month after the date we needed them. This simply doesn’t work. We cannot run a successful business without the labor needed to get the work done.”
Yet, for all the weaknesses of the H-2A program, Heger Farms has had no choice but to rely on it. “We desperately need a new agriculture worker visa program that includes options for year-round employment and renewability—all things the current program does not,” Heger says.
Without reform, Heger fears farms like hers will become unable to produce their crops. Although she understands the focus on securing the border, she believes America needs to consider national security on a broader scale. “If we aren’t able to grow our food domestically, we’re going to start relying heavily on imports. And that is a huge national security liability for the United States,” she says.