On the federal farm worker visa programs and the fallout of migrant worker laws recently passed in several states…

“The H2A program is very important. Obviously, with mandatory E-Verify more people want to look at it.

“But the H2A program only brings in about 60,000 workers every year. Actually, it was less than 60,000 people last year.

“If we implement mandatory E-Verify across the nation, even if only 50 percent of our (migrant) workforce turns to be falsely documented – and we think it’s closer to 70 or 80 percent – we’d lose over 500,000 workers. Consider that.

“H2A may be a great program. However, it’s supplying 60,000 workers a year, it’s difficult to use, difficult to get everything done in a timely fashion. It’s difficult for farmers to be assured they’ll have workers where and when they need them.

“If it’s hard to bring in 60,000 workers annually now, why would anyone believe the pipeline can be made big enough, fast enough? That system is going to serve American agriculture and bring in almost 500,000 people almost overnight?”

On legislators’ claims…

“A lot of politicians and congressional staffers say ‘don’t worry. We’ll ramp up and do it.’

“That doesn’t pass the red-face test. That’s why I like what (Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner) Mike Strain has been saying with regard to this.

“The current proposal for a new H2 program – a tweaked-up H2A that (Texas) Rep. Lamar Smith’s staff has floated – starts out handicapped. That’s because it suggests capping the number of workers at 500,000. Our experience is that once a cap is suggested it is sniped at and the proposed number usually shrinks if legislation progresses.”

On the future of farm labor…

“We see this horrendous ag labor shortage getting worse. We’re currently seeing less immigration from Mexico because their economy is stabilizing and aging and their birth rate is dropping. So, where will farm workers come from in a decade?

“More recently, there have been some workers that come in from other areas of the world. Some of the big harvesting crews that start in Texas and move up to the Midwest and into Canada are composed of South Africans or Australians.  

“I’m sometimes asked about farm workers coming in via J-1, or student, visas. Generally, that works well only for relatively small growers – like some organic growers. If you need someone to pick crops for 10 hours, that’s not likely to appeal to someone on an educational visa. They’ll sign up for a small organic farm with lots of mixed crops with (the aim of taking the gained knowledge) back home. That’s worked out well for some of those U.S. producers – but not for bigger operations.  

“But producers are being forced to consider all kinds of farm labor alternatives, including convicts. And using convicts can be problematic because some large grocery chains have prohibitions against using prison labor.”