Who harvests your food? Immigrant labor a growing piece of ag workforce

Brian Todd
Forum News Service

RUSHFORD, Minn. — Joel has returned to Featherstone Farms just west of Rushford for seven years now.

A native of the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, Joel — he pronounces it “HO-el” — sees each trip north as an opportunity.

“It’s a better future than in Mexico,” Joel said through his translator and boss, Nathan Manfull.

Joel explained how he and his fellow H-2A visa workers from central Mexico have jobs — some have their own farms, a few work in factories — back home, but the pay as an H-2A worker makes the trip worthwhile.

“They can make a year’s living in six months,” said Todd Bram, business director for Featherstone Farms. “They come here to make money and leave. They are fast pickers and harvesters. They’re eager to work.”

And without them, Featherstone Farms’ vegetables would mostly rot in the field.

Workers needed

It’s a matter of supply and demand.

Fred Wescott, owner of Wescott Agri Products near Elgin, said getting workers willing to do the manual labor of field work is next to impossible without bringing in immigrants with the seasonal worker H-2A visa program.

“We farmed apples as long as we could using a local labor force,” Wescott said. “But it’s just nonexistent today. Those days are gone.”

Wescott hires both types of immigrant labor, temporary workers through the H-2A visa program and permanent migrants who are here on green cards. Both have their place at Wescott’s apple orchard and packing and sorting business.

“Our main seasonal workers are H-2A workers who come up for a defined period of time,” he said. “We also have some year-around employees. They either have citizenship or are legal. We couldn’t even start to get a labor force in here without those programs.”

Better job, better life

H-2A workers in the United States make $13.54 an hour doing field labor on farms. While that might seem low by U.S. standards, it’s a fortune for Joel and his relatives, Juan and Aldo, and their friend Luis. Joel explained there is an American automotive factory less than an hour away from his village of Vista Hermosa. But the going rate for labor at the factory — and many other unskilled labor positions — is $110 a week. Since agriculture labor rules in the U.S. allow workers to put in 48 hours a week before overtime, Joel and his colleagues make nearly $650 a week at Featherstone Farms for six months.

Manfull said one worker owns a goat dairy, and the money he makes allows him to further invest in his own business, buying equipment or getting a new goat or two each year.

Bram said visa rules also require the employer to fund all transportation for employees from and back to Mexico, and the employer must provide housing.

In Featherstone Farms’ case, that means owning an apartment building in Rushford that houses about 23 people for six months, Bram said. Featherstone Farms hires 21 H-2A workers a year. Technically classified by the government as “non-immigrant” workers because they are expected to return home after their temporary assignment has expired, they are all migrants from the central Mexico state of Guanajuato. The farm also has a couple of permanent resident employees — green card holders — who live at the apartment building.

Most of the migrant workers are related to one another and, to the owners of Featherstone Farms, are like family.

Bram said one of the migrant workers had a couple of family members facing health problems a few years ago. At the time, owner Jack Hedin launched a GoFundMe page to raise $10,000 for the family to offset medical and funeral expenses.

A long process

Bram said Featherstone Farms has been hiring H-2A workers for 20 years, and statewide the number of immigrant laborers is growing. In 2000, there were 79,853 non-U.S. citizen workers in Minnesota, or about 3.2% of the workforce. In 2017, the most recent data available from the state demographer’s office, there are 131,173 non-U.S. citizen workers in Minnesota, or 4.7% of the workers in the state.

However, of the different industries where workers are tabulated, agriculture is growing the fastest in Minnesota. In 2000, 2.9% of agriculture workers were non-U.S. citizens. By 2017, that number had grown to 7.3%.

Bram starts the process of getting temporary workers for the next season each January. First, he must get approval to hire for the jobs — showing need for the positions — to the Department of Labor. Once that agency signs off, Bram moves his efforts to the Immigration Service, which handles the immigration paperwork for each individual. In May, before the workers are officially hired and transported to Rushford, Featherstone Farms must advertise for the jobs in local media outlets in Minnesota and northern Iowa. The jobs are also listed on the state labor department website.

“No one replied this year,” Bram said.

Despite the long process, it does not go smoothly. This year, for example, four workers remain in Mexico, held up on a paperwork snag, Bram said. Once they arrive, they will still need to leave by the Nov. 27 date all the workers are required to leave by.

Hard, necessary work

In the apple orchards, workers plant and prune trees, pick apples and sort those apples in a processing center near Elgin.

“It’s ag field work that is labor-intense,” Wescott said. “In the farming sector, there’s a defined time where everything needs to get done. Every year, on such and such date, I need 30 pickers.”

Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said there are about a million migrant workers hired by U.S. agriculture a year, some year-around, others short term. And while the workers aren’t always needed the whole year, when there’s a need, those laborers have to be accessible.

“If we would lose that workforce, half of the cows in Minnesota tonight would not be milked,” Paap said. “For fruits and vegetables, they are viable for a very short time in the field.”

Farmers: Migrant labor programs need to be fixed

“Put the right program together, and you solve the whole immigration issue,” Fred Wescott said.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

But a fix is needed.

“There’s no immigration or visa program that dairy farmers can turn to for workers,” said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of Minnesota Milk. “We can talk about stats. About 50% of the cows milked are milked by immigrants.”

Spotting the fakes

Sjostrom said that because of the nature of dairy work — cows need to be milked twice daily — dairies that use immigrants need those workers year-round. But workers who can get permanent visas can go to other job fields that have a heavy need for labor, such as construction and manufacturing.

Consequently, there are likely plenty of people using illegal documentation to get jobs, he said.

“People use fake documentation all the time,” Sjostrom said. “As the business owner, you are looking at real documents, but they are not theirs. But they might have a driver’s license and Social Security number that matches.”

Sjostrom said he could not guess how widespread the problem is, since numbers on something that “under the radar” can be problematic. But there are certainly workers being hired on false documentation, often unknown to the business owner.

Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said the complexity of the system for bringing in immigrant labor is a big part of the problem. The system is dealing with everything from temporary workers to permanent residents, from a path to citizenship to border security and document verification.

In the end, farmers are focused on just one thing.

“Our concern is having access to that labor when it’s needed,” Paap said. “As far as verifying, you have to take their word on it. We’ve got a hardworking workforce, but some of them may be unauthorized.”

Here and gone

While finding permanent workers from migrant labor has one set of problems — document verification and competition from other industries make getting temporary help problematic.

“It’s not a cheap program,” said Wescott, who hires 30 or so temporary workers a year — almost all are from south of the border on H-2A visas. They do the field labor of pruning trees and picking apples for Wescott Orchard and the Mississippi Valley Fruit Company orchards.

Wescott said the problem with hiring American workers is the nature of the work. It is hard, outdoor work that does not often appeal to U.S. citizens. Second, his need for labor comes in short peaks separated by long valleys. So, he might need about 30 employees for four months of picking in late summer through the fall, but he will require only 15 or 20 workers in the spring for planting and pruning.

It’s the perfect job for someone who sees the H-2A pay scale as an economic boon. That, he said, isn’t typically an American worker.

Wescott said he’d “absolutely” like to see the system overhauled.

“The sad part of it is, there’s an element of our government that’s against foreign workers,” Wescott said. “There’s an idea they take jobs away from local people, and it’s an absolute fallacy.”

Consequently, the system for hiring those temporary workers on an H-2A visa is “dysfunctional and difficult,” he said.

Paap said the process and problems with verification in both the temporary and permanent worker programs are labyrinths that can frustrate small business owners who are simply trying to put food on America’s table.

“The whole immigration system is more than three decades old, and it needs to be upgraded,” Paap said. “Eventually, we have to decide, are we going to import our labor or import our food?”

Four temporary workers from central Mexico, from left, Aldo, Juan, Joel and Luis, harvest red kale at Featherstone Farms near Rushford, Minn.
Aldo, a temporary worker from central Mexico, harvests red kale at Featherstone Farms near Rushford, Minn.
Fred Wescott.