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Ohio’s Largest Industry Depends on Migrant Labor, Says Farmer

For the last 10 years, Ohio farmer Tom Witten has relied on temporary workers from El Salvador to farm the 290 acres of sweet corn, tomatoes, and other labor-intensive crops that account for a substantial part of his business. He says the visa application process for these workers is expensive and cumbersome, but, he admits, “We don’t know how we’d do without it.”

The Wittens have been farming in Marietta since 1958, when Tom’s grandfather Ralph purchased land in the southeastern Ohio community. The family now farms 800 acres of field corn and soybeans, and raises Black Angus beef cattle. But it’s those 290 labor-intensive acres that provide produce for Witten’s 21 roadside stands in Ohio and West Virginia — markets that combined employ an estimated 220 Americans.

Those U.S. jobs only exist because of the 45 migrant workers Witten hires through the H-2A visa program for agricultural guest workers. The migrants do the work that Americans won’t, often working 70 to 80 hours a week in temperatures of 90 degrees and above. According to a report by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, more than 32,000 acres of fresh-market crops (strawberries, tomatoes, pumpkins, and more) were planted in the state in 2015, for a cash value of nearly $139 million. ”Migrant farmworkers are a vital contributor to Ohio’s agricultural economy,” the report concluded.

What they want is what every American wants.

Witten hires an attorney to assist with the H-2A visa application process, but this adds to his overhead and, in turn, increases prices for the consumer. Furthermore, even when the applications are completed on time, there is no guarantee that the workers will arrive in time to harvest the crops. Last year, for example, a federal staffing shortage led to a delay in visa processing. But crops cannot wait. Witten says the entire system needs to be streamlined. For example, many of his workers return each year, but he is still required to file a new visa for them.

Such uncertainty surrounding migrant labor threatens the growth of Ohio agribusiness, a  2012 report by the Ohio Latino Affairs Commission concluded. “Without a stable labor pool from which to draw workers, Ohio farmers have been reluctant to invest in an increase in crop acreage or diversification of commercial crops,”  the report stated. Agriculture is the largest industry in Ohio, contributing $98 billion annually to the state economy and employing one in seven Ohioans. Migrant workers’ value “is immense,” says Witten.

Witten feels strongly that much of the country’s anti-immigrant bias is unfounded; foreign-born residents are not lazy or criminal, he says: “What they want is what every American wants and used to be willing to work for.” He cites as example his own employees, who work 80-hour weeks picking crops so their children can attend a better school in El Salvador or their relatives can remodel their home, which, he says, “sounds very American to me.”

Perhaps most clear to the Witten family is the economic benefit that migrant workers bring, not just to their own farm, but to the entire community: in his case, 45 migrant workers create 220 American jobs. Beyond that, the workers allow the farm to continue and for the Wittens to buy a new truck or replace the kitchen roof. All of that economic activity is made possible by migrant labor.

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