Immigration reform is pivotal for the future of agriculture in the West

 

When farmer Kerry Mattics sunk several thousand dollars into building a bunkhouse for 12 workers to stay on his property during planting and harvest seasons, he figured the house would be useful for at least a decade. But by 2012, he had no workers to fill it up and his Olathe, Colo. fruit and vegetable farm’s productivity had dropped. (They now plant 5,000 tomato plants instead of 9,000 and 7,000 bell peppers instead of 22,000.) The reason: Mattics could no longer afford to use the H-2A visa program that brings hundreds of thousands of migrants to the U.S. each year for seasonal work.

Mattics had originally turned to the H-2A program back in 2008 because he couldn’t find enough workers – legal migrants or locals. But, he says, “It just got so expensive … (over four years) there were a lot more rules and regulations.” For example, when he started taking H-2A workers, he was required to first advertise in Colorado for his job openings, to give U.S. citizens a chance to apply. But now he has to advertise in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as well, which triples the cost. A few years ago, he and other employers paid transportation for H-2A workers from the Mexico border, but now, he's been told he has to foot the bill starting at the migrant’s home south of the border.

Migrant farm workers at Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, California, Aug., 2013. Photograph by Bob Nichols, USDA.

Needless to say, the fate of worker visa programs, currently being discussed as part of immigration reform proposals in Congress, is a huge deal for ag. Many farmers are still seeing worker shortages because fewer legal migrant workers are available and the H-2A process is too much of a nightmare or too expensive to participate in. (It’s worth noting that Mexico’s improving economy is likely another reason for the labor shortage. Increasing wages and better jobs in Mexico mean less incentive for workers to come to the U.S. for agricultural employment.)

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