Charlie Hancock has been farming in Tennessee for 37 years, and without foreign labor, he says, “there’s absolutely no way I could do what I do.” Hancock’s diverse range of crops — soybeans, wheat, straw, corn, and dark-fired tobacco — generates annual revenue of $700,000. But the labor-intensive harvesting work keeps Americans away.
Hancock advertises all the open positions, as required under federal law when applying for temporary, foreign workers. But he says no U.S. workers apply. “I don’t have any who are willing to work day in and day out doing the type of hard, physical work that’s required for us to put the meat and vegetables on the plate,” he says. Migrant workers, by contrast, are eager to take the jobs. Immigration reform, he says, “is a necessity for my business.”
There is so much paperwork that I literally have to hire somebody to get through all these hoops and make sure that I’ve done it legally.
Hancock has been working with the same group of migrant workers for the past 11 years, but securing the visas to hire them is becoming increasingly complicated and time consuming. “There is so much paperwork that I literally have to hire somebody to get through all these hoops and make sure that I’ve done it legally,” he says. The dark-fired tobacco he grows typically generates enough profit for him to legally hire temporary, seasonal labor through the H-2A visa, the only program for migrant agricultural workers. But, as director at large of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, he knows that not all farmers can afford to do so. “I couldn’t justify going through the system to get the 10 to 12 guys up here, paying for the transportation, paying the almost $11 wage . . . unless it’s a crop that you can make a decent profit in,” he says.
Farmers must pay application fees, visa fees, round-trip transportation costs, and provide workers housing for the season, a total estimated to average $2,500 per H-2A worker. In addition, the federal government sets the minimum allowable H-2A wage, which in Tennessee was put at $10.92 in 2017, 50 percent above the state’s minimum wage.
Many farmers say they don’t mind what it costs to hire migrant workers, because in return they receive a highly skilled, reliable workforce for the season. But when bureaucratic blunders delay or impede those workers’ arrival, farmers are put in a costly bind. “That can get you into some red ink quick if they don’t get you your workers there on time,” Hancock says. “Some crops, they’re ripe today, rotten tomorrow.”
A national survey by the National Council of Agricultural Employers in 2010 found that 72 percent of farmers who used the H-2A visa program that year received their workers late, and that the average delay was 22 days. Those delays translated to $170 million in lost revenue for U.S. farmers.
Farmers want to follow the rules, Hancock says, but the system can make it difficult. “The workers that come through, yes we need to check them out,” he says. “But we need to make it as simplified as possible.”
He worries that political sparring is standing in the way of necessary reform. He wonders: Will the visa approval process become even more difficult due to the spotlight that’s been put on immigration and security? What if those farmers who may not have complied previously now start submitting visa paperwork? “Does the government have enough personnel to handle that so that it won’t create more problems for those of us who have been following the system for years?” he asks. “The worst-case scenario is that the workers are not going to be here when the crops are ready to harvest. Because if that happens, it will cost me, and that will cost the consumer.”
Migrant workers don’t just make it possible to grow food at home, he says. They also spend money in the community while they’re here. Foreign-born workers in his congressional district, for example, held $645 million in spending power in 2014 and paid $198 million in taxes. “They are here to work, but they also support the stores and restaurants while they’re here,” Hancock says. “They’ve even gone around and weeded places for neighbors, not for money, but just to help them out. The people who come from other countries are hard workers and having them here is just a big advantage to us all.”