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California farming. (Photo: CA Dept. of Conservation)

Farmers Will Face Labor Shortage as Guest Worker Visas Are Temporarily Suspended

Guest worker shortage will leave fruit and vegetable farmers short staffed

By Evan Symon, March 19, 2020 2:25 am

On Tuesday, the U.S. government, responding to the COVID-19 coronavirus, suspended all routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services with Mexico to stop the spread of the virus.

The suspension, which began on Wednesday, will greatly reduce the number of migratory workers coming into the United States for planting and harvesting, specifically in the fruit and vegetable rich Central Valley.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (Wikipedia)

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue did say on Tuesday that consulates and embassies in Mexico will still process returning guest workers in the H2A program, but that amount would only cover about 40% to 50% of the farmers current needs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 77,000 H2A visas were given out in March and April of 2019. This year it is likely to be only half of that.

“We’re concerned,” said Fresno County orange and grape grower Richard Ford. “We hire dozens here to help out. It’s largely by hand too. Out in the Midwest, it’s a simple sow and grow of grains, followed by harvesting. You need few people for that. For citrus trees and other things like green beans and almonds, it’s all by hand.”

“If I only get 40% of the workers needed, I don’t know what I’ll do. I may try to entice some of those people out of work in [Fresno] or even up in San Francisco or LA. If it doesn’t get done we might be looking at some shortages or raised prices.”

Another farmer, Ernesto Moreno of Kern County, agreed.

“It was hard enough bringing in people before,” Moreno responded. “My grandfather did this and said it was backbreaking. Those who I hire today say the same thing. But many people want a chance at a good life and see this as a step, as well as a job.”

“We just denied them that. And now, when we need food now more than ever, we may lose some of our production.”

“And it’s not so simple to bring people out here from cities. I’ve had people come from Bakersfield and LA to work here, but they quit after a week. Some that first day. It’s hard, manual labor. If we get a shortage because of it, we may see more people giving it a try.”

“We can only hope.”

Farmer lobbying groups, such as the American Farm Bureau, have even warned about such a labor shortage in the planting season, potentially leading to less food this fall.

“California will probably be ok, but exports to other states might be less,” added Ford. “And choosing where to send crops to is never a decision me or any farmer or company never thought they would have to make. [A quarter] of the nations food comes from the Central Valley. Any lowered production will have consequences.”

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