A cool, late-spring day found Enrique Ceja and Omar Orosco handling one of the many chores on HF Farms, near Ogden, Iowa. They cruised fields with an old tractor and cart to remove softball- to bowling-ball-sized rocks from ground soon to be planted to corn or soybeans.
Ceja has been coming to HF Farms, owned and run by the Heineman family, for 13 years. This is Orosco’s third year traveling from Mexico with Ceja to work at HF Farms under the federal H-2A program, which allows foreign citizens to work on U.S. farms seasonally for jobs that cannot be filled by Americans.
The majority of the 125,000-plus H-2A workers in the U.S. during the course of a year will be employed in the South, Southwest and West on produce, citrus, nut and tobacco farms. Use of the program in the Midwest is on the uptick. In fact, at a time when immigration to the U.S. of any type has become a hot-button issue, and the unemployment rate is low, the need for farm workers has never been greater.
“Using H-2A in our neighborhood is unique,” Brett Heineman said. “But, it had become increasingly difficult to find good farm labor at wages we could pay.” The unemployment rate in central Iowa is currently about 3%, and any farm seeking workers has to compete with numerous factory, truck-driving and even service jobs.
Ceja’s reasons for working in the U.S. are easy to understand: He’s been doing it now for 23 years. He worked on tobacco farms for 10 years in North Carolina before finding employment for the Heinemans in Iowa. He and Orosco will make $13.42 per hour, which is a rate mandated for Iowa by the U.S. Department of Labor. (H-2A refers to the employment law code section allowing these workers).
In broken English, Ceja (he isn’t proficient in English, nor are the Heinemans in Spanish) said he might be able to find similar farm work in Mexico or perhaps a job in a restaurant. Those jobs would only pay him $7 to $9 — per day.
Ceja and Orosco spend nine months of every year in Iowa doing machinery repair and maintenance, driving grain carts, maintaining vegetation and other farm duties. They must return to their home country at the end of nine months. As mandated by the H-2A program, the Heinemans also provide free housing, as well as transportation to and from work. In the case of Ceja and Orosco, they have the added benefit of full-time use of a pickup and gasoline provided by the farm.
“The H-2A program doesn’t have a cap, so you can theoretically bring in as many workers as you can justify,” said Aaron Bernard, of the Bernard Law Firm, which specializes in helping farm operations find foreign workers and fulfill all the legal requirements to participate. “That is one of the great benefits which makes this visa category attractive.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t oversight. Bernard explained the requirements to participate have become harder over the years, and record-keeping in regards to payroll and hours worked are stringent. Still, demand for H-2A workers continues to increase, and he doesn’t see that changing.
“I think that finding farm workers is especially difficult for U.S. employers because it is seasonal,” Bernard said. “Filling these jobs is often not a matter of the wage rate but of stability. U.S. workers want a job year-round, and most of these jobs aren’t year-round.”
An H-2A visa does not put a worker in line or on a path to receiving permanent residence — a “green card.” H-2A is a nonimmigrant visa issued for only a limited time. Ceja and Orosco have no desire to move permanently to the U.S., but both say they wouldn’t mind their children working in the U.S., as well.
In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated 33% of workers in U.S. agriculture were immigrants. Of that number, an estimated 18% were unauthorized immigrants, while the other 15% were lawful.
More farms are relying on the H-2A program for workers partially because of labor scarcity. A study released Aug. 28 by CoBank shows that manual laborers are leaving agriculture to move into more higher-paying industries such as construction, hospitality, mining and transportation. The labor scarcity is increasing also because of a declining number of migrant workers from Mexico. Tighter immigration controls and enforcement are leading to fewer migrant workers for U.S. farms.
“Wages have historically been higher in these other industries compared to most farm labor,” said Ben Laine, a senior economist with CoBank. “The difference now is that these jobs are much more widely available and are more in line with the background of workers coming from Mexico.”
Laine added that without a clear solution to the labor shortage, challenges for farmers could grow in the years ahead.
“Ultimately, the risk to the agriculture sector or any domestic industry is that wages will increase to the point where it becomes more cost effective for the U.S. to import commodities rather than import the labor to produce them domestically,” Laine said.
The Kornegays can attest to the value of the H-2A program; they use it in a big way. The family employs 60 laborers from Mexico each year on its 5,500-acre operation, near Princeton, North Carolina. The employees live in two 30-person dormitories from April through October. Both dormitories were built in the past five years.
“We get a good-quality worker, and they seem to enjoy being here and working — we have many of the same guys every year,” explained Kim Kornegay-LeQuire. Kim, along with her parents, Danny and Susie, and brother, Dan, run a diversified operation with cotton, peanuts, tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn, soybeans, watermelons and asparagus. They also raise 10,000 hogs annually on contract and operate a year-round warehouse facility on the farm that cleans, sorts, stores and ships sweet potatoes.
Their need for farm labor is substantial. The mandated hourly wage for North Carolina for 2018 is $11.46 per hour. When housing, transportation, insurance and costs such as workers compensation are figured in, the per-hour pay rate is more like $15 to $17 per hour, Danny Kornegay said.
“Those costs have continued to go up, but the market prices for our crops have not,” Danny explained. The cost to build their most recent dormitory, which includes a kitchen and laundry facilities, was about $150,000.
“Generally, the program has worked out well for us,” Kim said. “We had 30 H-2A workers in 2015 then went to 60 the next year. The hourly rate isn’t bad, but the housing and travel costs really increase the overall expense.” The family may spend $60,000 ($1,000 times 60 workers) this year just for workers to travel to and from Mexico.
Ceja and Orosco travel to and from Mexico via a charter bus that carries several dozen H-2A workers. They buy a lot of products to take back home, including televisions, shoes and name-brand clothes. Most such products are cheaper here, Heineman said. Outfitting their families and extended families this way is small consolation for being away for so long every year.
Both Ceja and Orosco smile sheepishly and shake their heads when asked how their wives and children like the work arrangement. Their families aren’t necessarily fond of months without loved ones but see it as a necessity to get ahead, Heineman explained.
“This is a pretty valuable program,” Heineman said, “that allows us to fill a need in the operation but is very hard to find here. Enrique and Omar appreciate being able to come up here to make money that goes back home. And, they’ve been around so long, they are really part of the community here.”