US risks missing ‘critical’ cropping period without temporary visas

President and chair of ag industry bodies Chuck Conner says what is left of limited state resources must be allocated to processing H2A visas to avoid 'devastating impacts' on food production.

The Trump Administration needs to find a way to restart processing interviews for the H2A temporary agricultural visas, which were halted last week as part of efforts to stop the spread of covid-19, before the US misses a critical cropping period.

President and chief executive of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and chair of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition Chuck Conner told Agri Investor: “This is a peak period in terms of need for those guest workers.”

“And obviously, when you are involved in agricultural production, if you don’t get a crop planted, there’s not a whole lot you do the rest of the year that matters because if the crop is not in the ground, you are in trouble,” Conner said.

“This is a critical period. If we mess this up, the implications will carry through for a very, very long time and certainly have devastating impacts on our ability to produce food for the rest of the year, certainly.”

The AWC sent a letter to secretary of state Mike Pompeo last week, highlighting the threat that a lack of Mexican migrant workers posed to US agriculture’s ability to provide steady food supply.

Conner said that although he does not know if the State Department has responded directly to the letter, the AWC is pleased that agriculture and the nation’s food system was designated as a critical infrastructure sector last week.

“With the coronavirus, everything is happening in hours, not days or weeks. We are expecting something within the next few days in terms of a decision on what they can and cannot do.”

Conner declined to discuss potential options under consideration in detail but did say AWC has called for expedited processing of visas for ag laborers who have already worked in the US. He added that AWC would also support emergency exceptions for first-time workers, who he suggested could be interviewed virtually or at some point after they have entered the country.

“We’re all learning to do our work differently as a result of this virus and this area should be no exception,” he said. “Our point is, as you are allocating reduced resources, what’s left really needs to be focused upon helping us meet these requirements and making sure that the workers are able to get across the border.”

Conner estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the agricultural labor force in the US is foreign born, with a significant portion coming from Mexico.

Given that labor typically accounts for about 50 to 70 percent of the cost of production for fruits and vegetables, those sectors stand to be most impacted by any disruption to seasonal labor supplies, said Conner.

Timing for when such planting work will need to have been completed varies by region. Conner said that though there are regions of California where farmers have already planted a crop that can be harvested soon, additional labor will be needed for subsequent planting there and throughout other agricultural regions, whose crops have come to form an important part of supply nationwide.

“Michigan cherries, New Jersey tomatoes, all those kinds of things, that is the stuff that, within the next 60 days, that is the crunch period for that. Those crops have got to be put in the ground,” he said. “Those are not climates where you can grow several months out of the year; you’ve got a window that you have to meet in order to produce that crop.”

AWC is a coalition of commodity-focused organizations that has lobbied Congress for comprehensive immigration reform since 2013.

In light of the coronavirus outbreak, Conner said, recent weeks have seen the organization shift its focus from advocacy aiming to increase labor supply, towards efforts to maintain the level of agricultural workers necessary to produce food over the medium and long terms.