In 45 years in the agriculture business, Frank Gasperini, former CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), has seen the phenomenon time and again: U.S. farms scrapping crops because they don’t have enough workers for harvest. “When farmers realize their labor is going to be really late, they’ll start disking stuff up early and replace it with something else,” says Gasperini, who owns FGasperini Associates, an agricultural association and management consultancy in Leesburg, Virginia. “Some farmers, if they’ve had a bad year, their labor didn’t come, they’ll say, OK, we’re going to plant 10 percent more corn and soybeans this year. But what that really means is 10 percent less food crops.” It’s a no-win situation for the $215 billion agriculture industry, and a loss for Americans expecting to find fresh, domestic produce at the grocery store.
Without enough U.S.-born workers to fill agriculture jobs, American farmers are forced to rely on foreign-born labor — a workforce that comprises more than half of all hired farmworkers nationwide. The only means farmers have to legally hire foreign guest workers is through the H-2A visa program. But visa delays often prevent workers from arriving on time, Gasperini says, leaving farmers with two options: They can take the financial hit and risk going out of business, or they can destroy their dying crops and plant something else in its place. When Gasperini surveyed his members in 2010, 72 percent reported that the H-2A workers they had requested arrived after the date of need, and that, on average, those workers arrived 22 days late, costing American farmers an estimated $169.8 million in lost crops that year.
If visa logjams are not corrected, the losses will only grow as labor shortages increase. Thanks to improved economic conditions south of the border, the number of new immigrants coming into the United States to work in agriculture has fallen by 75 percent in recent years. “The current major agricultural labor shortage is growing and coming to crisis proportions for the industry,” says Gasperini. “At some point we could reach a tipping point where it no longer becomes profitable to produce our own food here and we must start importing most of our food production.” The share of fresh fruits that the United States imports rose from 14.5 percent to 25.8 percent from 1998 to 2012, while the share of vegetables imported nearly doubled during the same time period, from 17.1 percent to 31.2 percent. In 2014 alone, agricultural labor shortages cost growers an estimated $3.1 billion in fresh produce sales. And because agriculture is intertwined with so many other industries — transportation, packing, irrigation, and more — any decline in domestically produced goods represent losses to the broader economy, as well.
Gasperini points out that any dependence on foreign food also represents a threat to the nation’s security and independence. “Can you imagine what it would be like if even the friendly countries suddenly controlled our food supply? Think about the political leverage they’d have on us. It would be devastating,” says Gasperini, who remembers when many Americans were unable to drive to work during the 1973 oil embargo. “It’s a huge economic and a huge national security issue to maintain control of our own food supply. And right now the only way for that to happen is for us to import workers.”
If we can’t have a skilled, willing, and available workforce, then we don’t have agriculture.
Even without visa delays, the H-2A program as currently structured is too rigid to accommodate nature’s inevitable fluctuations. Farmers must request workers for exact work dates and do so months in advance — meaning months in advance of when farmers can possibly know exactly when a crop will be ripe and ready for harvest. “A blueberry grower who picks blueberries over the course of four weeks — if your workers are late, you can lose your whole crop and with it a whole year’s income,” says Gasperini. “The same is true for a lot of other tree fruits and vegetables.”
The capacity of the H-2A visa program is another major problem. “Right now, the guest worker program only provides about 10 percent of the agriculture workforce,” says Gasperini. “The fact that you have to go through three government agencies limits how many foreign workers they can verify and approve.” Even if these agencies hired enough officials to process twice as many visas as they’re currently doing, it still wouldn’t generate the workforce that growers need. That’s especially true, he adds, if undocumented immigrants, who fill many jobs as field hands, were deported.
Gasperini would like to see the H-2A visa expanded, streamlined, and made more flexible, to accommodate farmers’ varied needs. “It is really expensive for a blueberry farmer to bring H-2A workers here for a short four- to six-week season versus a vegetable or apple farmer who needs those workers for six to eight months,” he says. “If you could keep them for when you need them, and then they can move to another grower in the visa system without having to return home each time, it would help with the costs.”
In addition, extending one-year visas to three years would reduce vetting time and prevent delays, thus reducing costs for government and growers alike, he says. The longer work periods would also offer workers a better quality of life. “People from a foreign country, they want to go home for family things and vacations,” says Gasperini. “But when you’re on a short-term visa, you only have 10 months to make your yearly income. So if someone gets sick or there’s a wedding, it puts you in a hard position.”
Immigration reform to help alleviate agricultural labor shortages is needed now, not later, says Gasperini. “Immigration policy is critical to the future of food production, nursery production, all labor-intensive agriculture,” he says. “If we can’t have a skilled, willing, and available workforce, then we don’t have agriculture.”