By Doug Graves
FREMONT, Ohio – Fresh fruits and vegetables could be in short supply this year because the coronavirus pandemic is making it more difficult for farmers to bring in migrant workers from other countries. On an average year, returning migrant workers comprise between 40 to 50 percent of America’s 250,000 annual migrant farm workers, the majority of whom are from Mexico, Guatemala or other Latin American countries.
Nearly 70 percent of the vegetables and about 45 percent of the fruit consumed in the U.S. is grown domestically, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Last month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suspended all in-person interviews until further notice to protect its staff from the rapidly spreading disease. That decision means no new migrant workers can obtain visas. With spring planting season about to begin in many states, farmers fear they won’t have enough labor to plant and later harvest their crops.
Sandusky County in the northern part of Ohio is feeling this concern. Dan Liskai plants and harvests cucumbers, banana peppers and jalapenos on his large farm operation in this county. His planting season typically begins in May. He prepares his camp for dozens of seasonal migrant workers that converge on his farm.
“Many of my workers I employ are through the federal government’s H-2A program and they come from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala,” said Liskai, whose workers typically show up in May when he starts planting. The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs.
Normally, Liskai’s biggest concern this time of year is whether there will be too much rain in the forecast. But with the coronavirus pandemic, safety and economic concerns are huge. He’s also afraid of what the state’s economic shutdown will do to some of the local markets they supply.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the media at a coronavirus update press conference that the U.S. will do all it can to ensure that foreign migrant workers can return for the harvest season. Currently, only foreign workers who came to the U.S. last year under the H2-A program may return.
As of April 23, the U.S. Agriculture and Labor departments announced they had identified nearly 20,000 migrant workers currently in the U.S. whose contracts are about to expire and could be available to work for a different farm. According to those at the Ohio Farm Bureau, the impact will be on fruits and vegetables that have to be tended and picked by hand. These include tomatoes, peppers, berries and melons.
“We are not a highly mechanized industry,” said Brian Garwood, the owner of Garwood Orchards, a fruit farm in northern Indiana. “We are still dependent on labor. Ant it is tough work. We can’t get Americans to do these jobs. If I don’t get migrant workers, we won’t be able to do anything. I’ll go out of business.
Ben Brown, the farm management program manager for Ohio State’s College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), acknowledges that the gap between the number of workers farmers need and how many they ultimately will employ this year has likely gotten bigger as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“My assumption and from talking with Ohio producers is, yes, it has, but I don’t know the magnitude,” Brown said.
Brown said some farmers, instead of raising pay, are increasing non-monetary benefits to attract workers such as offering meals, a personal vehicle, clothing, continuing education, retirement plans, or a commodity share.
Joyce Chen, an OSU associate professor also in the university’s CFAES department, said that among the top five industries in which Ohio employs H02A workers are nursery/greenhouse and tomatoes as well as cucumber and pepper cultivation.
“The H-2A processing and immigration services also have been delayed by the pandemic,” Chen said, “and H-2A workers already in the country are likely at higher risk of getting sick due to their designation as essential workers.”
Sandusky and Ottawa counties are generally considered two of Ohio’s top counties when it comes to employing migrant laborers in agriculture. A 2012 migrant workers report from the state’s Commission on Latino Affairs ranked Sandusky County first in Ohio with almost 2,000 seasonal laborers, with Ottawa County fourth. Migrant workers are needed in west central Ohio where numerous strawberry farms reside.
Polter Berry Farms in Fremont, Ohio, employs migrant workers to produce crops that include strawberries, cabbages, pickles and peppers. The farm employs around 45 migrant workers each year.
On top of the worker shortages, a big concern generated by the coronavirus pandemic is whether restaurants throughout Ohio and other states will continue to be closed and confined to only carryout or delivery service. Polter produces crops that are purchased by the local food service industry.
“If restaurants stay closed, we’re worried we’re going to have excess crops we can’t sell,” Polter said.