In 2011, third-generation apple farmer Phil Glaize, drove up and down the eastern seaboard searching for farm workers. He had made a point of only hiring Americans to work his 650-acre farm, which produces roughly $5.5 million in revenue annually. But as the economy improved after the recession, he found that Americans weren’t responding to his ads — not even when he engaged professional recruiters. “Every single one of the farmers I talked to told me, No, they didn’t have American workers,” he says. “They were all in the H-2A visa program for temporary workers. And that’s when I finally decided to get in, too.”
So, after making due with 20 percent fewer workers in 2011, which, Glaize says, “put a real pinch on us,” his business now relies on a staff of almost 200 people, 70 of whom are temporary foreign laborers from Mexico. And although Glaize technically has enough labor now, his problems aren’t solved. The H-2A program, the only visa option for American farmers, is both costly and inefficient.
If we can’t continue to produce and sell apples for profit here, we will have to import our food from elsewhere.
“A workforce shortage or delay in the arrival of workers has a domino effect that leads to overripe fruit or fruit on the ground for the rest of the season,” says Glaize. And in the H-2A program, delays are common. Applications must go through three different government agencies before they are approved. A survey of the 2010 season revealed that 72 percent of farms using the H-2A visa program received their workers after the date they needed them, and that on average those workers were 22 days late, costing America’s farms an estimated $169.8 million in lost crops. For the $4 billion apple industry, such a delay could account for as much of a third of the harvest season.
The visa can also be expensive. “Hopping into the H-2A program escalated our cost tremendously,” says Glaize, who pays, on average, $2,500 for each foreign guest worker after including the required housing and transportation costs. “But I had to make that choice in order to get the crop harvested in a way that gave us the highest quality apples.”
Glaize would like to see the current visa process streamlined so that applications only have to go through one agency. “I don’t know what the proper agency is,” he says, “but it’s crucial that that agency understand the timeliness and importance of having that worker on site on time.”
A failure to reform the system, he says, could have serious consequences for growers, who might be forced out of business, and for the future of the U.S. food industry. “If we’re unable to make a profit from farming, the bank will tell us to stop,” says Glaize. “China is already the world’s largest producer of apples. So if we can’t continue to produce and sell apples for profit here, we will have to import our food from elsewhere.”
The potential economic and security issues should inspire lawmakers to put comprehensive immigration reform at the top of their list, Glaize says. “People have been dragging their feet for decades,” he says. “Now something has to happen, and it has to happen now.”