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Lack of Labor: A Sweet Potato Farmer’s “Nightmare”

Every winter, Melissa Edmondson sends a stream of paperwork along with a $4,000 check to a firm in Georgia that specializes in processing visas for seasonal immigrant labor.

The firm mails all the appropriate forms to all the appropriate agencies – state and federal offices scattered around the country – but Edmondson still needs to supply the data: about the farm, the work, the ads for local workers, the hours, the pay, the housing. The paperwork fills cases.

Two months later, the process starts again, for the next round of workers. And, three months later, again. Edmondson had to hire an assistant to handle the paperwork.

“It is very much a costly process, but it is one we couldn’t do without,” Edmondson says. “Were it not for the H-2A contract workers, we could forget about the sweet-potato farm.”

Edmondson’s family owns Topashaw Farms, in northeast Mississippi, and hires workers from Mexico using the H-2A visa, an immigration permit for seasonal agricultural labor.

In many ways hers is a typical American farm: 97 percent of America’s 2.1 million farms are family-owned, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Edmondson married into Topashaw Farms in 1979, and helped her husband expand from 120 acres to 5,300 acres. They raise cattle, and grow sweet potatoes, soybeans, and corn.

Were it not for the H-2A contract workers, we could forget about the sweet-potato farm.

Every year, the farm generates enough revenue to support four families– hers and those of her three grown children. They, in turn, all funnel money back into the economy, in the form of equipment, chemicals, boxes and other farm supplies, along with groceries and household goods for themselves and their workers.

But Edmondson always has to worry if the farm will have enough workers, thanks to an increasingly difficult labor situation.

Like many farms in the country, her farm relies on immigrant labor. Nationally, 72.9 percent of field and crop workers were born abroad. The H-2A program she typically uses to bring in workers, however, has grown increasingly cumbersome and restrictive. “The last five to 10 years it’s been just atrocious,” she says.

Last year, workers scheduled to arrive March 1 to bed her sweet potatoes didn’t arrive until March 20, after the visa paperwork apparently got backed up on a government desk. Edmondson had to call her congressman to track it down and expedite the application. “It’s just been getting harder and harder to get migrant labor across the border,” says Edmondson, who recently saw a farm laborer who has worked in the country for 15 years face a visa denial.

Edmondson, however, says she has few other options. Several years ago, she tried to hire local workers, which resulted in a situation she called “a nightmare.”  Few, if any, workers apply for the arduous positions in the fields, and the handful that do typically don’t last the season. So instead, for now, she uses the H-2A visa program, providing the immigrant laborers $10.69 an hour and free housing.

She just hopes the immigration system becomes less cumbersome: “If it comes to the point of us not getting those workers, then we would have to downsize or shut down.”

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