Apr 13, 2017
Growers share pros and cons of H-2A program

Short on labor and thinking about hiring H-2A workers? The federal guest-worker program, which more farm employers are using these days, has its pros and cons. A couple of Michigan growers shared their experiences with Fruit Growers News.

Oomen Bros. Vegetable Farms in Hart, Michigan, grows a mix of vegetables for the processing and fresh markets, but its main crop is asparagus (325 acres). Finding enough asparagus pickers has been a struggle in the last few years. They didn’t have to mow much of the crop down, fortunately, but there was
a lot of “frustration and stress” every spring, wondering if enough people would show up, said Ken Oomen, who runs the farm with his brother Ralph.

They decided to try H-2A last year. Working with a contractor based in Florida, they hired 20 guest workers to pick asparagus. The experience was “fantastic,” Ken said.

“The H-2A workers performed the job they were assigned, and did it to the quality standards our customers expect,” he said.

They plan to hire about 145 H-2A workers this year. Most of them will work in the packing shed during the six weeks or so of asparagus harvest. Turnover in the packing shed is extremely high (they needed roughly 80 workers, but cycled through 190, last year), and they’re hoping H-2A will stabilize the situation, Ken said.

Despite their overall happiness with H-2A, the program has its disadvantages. Even though the contractor handles the paperwork, the employer is responsible for its accuracy. Even tiny mistakes can lead to delayed or lost workers. And H-2A will cost you more than a purely domestic work force. If using H-2A, you have to pay all of your workers what’s known as the adverse effect wage rate ($12.75 an hour for Michigan in 2017), which is higher than the minimum wage, according to Ralph and Ken.

On the advantage side, the Oomens don’t have to pay taxes and unemployment for the H-2A workers, and housing them actually costs less than for domestic workers because they need less of it (though the H-2A program has strict housing requirements), according to Ralph and Ken.

Another advantage is peace of mind. They know now that the asparagus will get picked, Ken said.

Russell Constanza Farms

The coming season will be the third that Russell Costanza Farms in Sodus, Michigan, uses H-2A workers. The farm grows hundreds of acres of fresh-market cucumbers, summer squash, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, said Russell Costanza, who runs the farm with his family. All those crops need reliable employees to pick them.

“Farmers are not looking for cheap help,” Costanza said. “They’re looking for efficient, willing and able help. Sometimes, they’ll give up on efficiency to get willing and able.”

The farm has been having a harder time finding willing and able help lately, to the point where it had to shrink acreage to avoid leaving crops in the field. And the fewer workers it had, the more the remaining workers had to shoulder, to the point where they couldn’t even take Sundays off. It was getting to the point where the family had to quit farming or join H-2A, he said.

They applied for 80 H-2A visas in 2015, then 90 in 2016. This year, they’ll hire about 125, Costanza said.

The family decided to use Great Lakes Agricultural Labor Services, a branch of Michigan Farm Bureau, as its H-2A contractor. One thing they’ve learned is that if you join H-2A, you have to commit fully.

You need someone on your staff to know the rules – and to make sure you’re following them. Costanza has two full-time employees working on H-2A issues, he said.

“If you’re going to follow most of the rules, you’ll get fined heavily,” he said. “You have to follow all the rules, no matter how stupid you think they are.”

H-2A has other downsides. It’s costly (add everything up – wages, housing, paperwork, etc. – and Costanza said it costs him close to $18 an hour for each worker) – the farm can’t afford to make other improvements. And not all of the H-2A workers were as experienced as Costanza had hoped. The program has grown tremendously in the last decade, and the greater number of workers might have diluted the quality somewhat. Housing has to be up to code, as well, he said.

— Matt Milkovich, managing editor

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