In the last two issues of the Fruit Grower News the cover page has lead titles of “Labor Pains” and “Helping Hands.” In each month, the number one topic of concern is not over production but who will harvest this production. As the borders to the south become less porous and the birth rates in nations below the Rio Grande approach those equal to our own we are seeing less help appearing at our farms from north to south. Reality is hitting home that to meet the human resource needs of agriculture there is one route, H2A.
Many of the farms here in NYS have a long history of usage of this program. Many more are feeling the shortages and looking for the first time at a program they vowed openly to avoid. Their perception is correct about the shortages. In 2011 when we had 77,260 H2A workers in this country. In 2016 that number rose to 165,741. This works out to a 215% increase in 5 years. Everyone feels that 2017 will be higher still. Companies are moving to this program simply because they have no certainty under the traditional models that they can fill their needs.
I think an important reality for those of you in the fruit business is that only 6% of this number will be picking apples. That means almost every type of agriculture, from every geographic region, will be drawing on this program. It is actually amazing that the current USDA staffs have been able to keep up as well as they have, given the many federal freezes on hiring of new employees.
I have heard for decades farmers complain about the program. Is it perfect? Is it at times too slow? Does it cost you more than your traditional hiring? The answers to each of these questions is yes of course. I contend that until we find a collective national voice to give us the necessary guest worker system that we best try to work within this model. Imagine if those politicians we have been complaining to for decades about this program decided to drop it? Be careful what you wish for.