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Harvest season is here

Right now, acres and acres of lettuce sit ready to be picked in California’s Salinas Valley – an area known as the Salad Bowl of the World. But who will harvest it?

The Golden State is an agricultural powerhouse, producing more than 400 commodities, including one-third of all U.S.-grown vegetables and two-thirds of our fruits and nuts. In 2019, California’s agriculture exports totaled $21.02 billion, ranking first among all states in the value of farm exports for the last twenty years. California’s almonds are a favorite of the European Union, its dairy products ship to Mexico, California pistachios travel to China, and the state’s high-quality rice is increasingly popular in Japan.

Spring means harvest season is here – or will be soon – for many crops in California and around the country, from asparagus to cucumbers to tomatoes and more. Thousands of workers are needed to pick these crops. And over the years, those workers have become harder and harder to find – a challenge that is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Labor shortages cause farm losses

The American Farm Bureau Federation says that U.S. agriculture needs 1.5 to 2 million hired workers. These challenging, often seasonal, positions are essential to food production – but few U.S. citizens are willing to fill them. A California Farm Bureau Federation survey found that 56 percent of California farmers have been unable to find all the workers they need during the last five years.

While some farmers are shifting to labor-saving technologies, others can’t afford the expense of mechanization. And many of the high-value fruits and vegetables that California is known for must be harvested by hand to ensure their quality.

Given this chronic labor shortage, immigrants – most from Mexico – play an increasingly crucial role in our food system. Foreign-born workers can legally come to the United States to perform short-term farm labor under the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program, often referred to as the H-2A visa program.

56 percent cant find workers needed

Temporary labor through H-2A program

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 established the agriculture-focused H-2A program and a separate H-2B program for skilled workers in industries like healthcare and tech. The H-2A program is the primary way that U.S. farmers can legally hire immigrant labor from countries deemed eligible by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The process requires several steps and fees.

To participate, farmers must first receive a temporary labor certification for H-2A workers from the Department of Labor (DOL). This should be submitted 60 to 75 days before workers are needed. Then, farmers must file a petition to the DHS U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). After USCIS approves the petition, prospective H-2A workers outside the U.S. apply for a visa through the U.S. Department of State at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate and seek admission to the U.S. with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a U.S. Port of Entry.

Open positions unable to fill

Rules are in place so that the H-2A program does not take jobs from domestic workers or lower the average wage. Before hiring H-2A workers, farm employers must demonstrate to the DOL that they are unable to recruit U.S. citizens for their open positions. They are also required to pay a state-specific minimum wage that may not be lower than the average wage for crop and livestock workers in their region during the prior year, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate.

Once approved, H-2A visa holders are allowed to work in the U.S. temporarily. The visa can be re-approved annually for up to three years. A worker loses their H-2A status if they leave their job. After a worker has three years of H-2A status, they are required to leave the United States for at least three months before applying to receive a H-2A visa again. The H-2A visa does not apply to a worker’s family members and does not give workers a way to gain permanent legal status. Unlike the H-2B program, there is no cap set on the total number of H-2A visas that can be granted each year.

number farmer workers exceeds visas

Greater need than visas

In 2019, nearly 258,000 immigrant workers were granted H-2A visas, with most working in Florida, Georgia, Washington, California, and North Carolina. Participation has jumped from 48,000 positions certified in 2005. However, the number of farm workers that are needed each year far surpasses the number of H-2A visas that are granted. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that the percentage of farm workers who are not legally authorized to work in the United States grew from 14 percent in 1989 to more than 50 percent in recent years.

While the H-2A program has grown in size, both farmers and farm worker advocates are critical of it. Farmers say it is a complicated, expensive process to navigate. Furthermore, year-round agriculture sectors like dairy farming, pork production or even mushroom farming can’t use the program since it is only available to seasonal industries. Labor groups argue H-2A needs reform to provide more protections to workers.

Agriculture’s workforce challenges recently received some attention on Capitol Hill. In December 2019, the full House of Representatives passed the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 5038). Among its many changes, the bill would make H-2A more flexible for employers and establish a new, capped program for year-round workers. It would also provide a pathway to permanent resident status for farm workers and include new enforcement measures. While the House’s passage of H.R. 5038 marks the first time that body has approved immigration legislation since 1986, the bill has not received a vote in the Senate.

The Trump Administration has also shown interest in updating the H-2A program, streamlining the application process on the USDA website. DOL issued a proposed rule in September 2019 that would update how the Adverse Effect Wage Rate is calculated, among other provisions. That rule has not yet been finalized. Additionally, in October 2019 the DOL issued a final rule to modernize the market labor test by allowing farmers to advertise jobs on a central online registry rather than a local print newspaper.

critical industry

COVID exacerbating labor shortage

Travel restrictions and government closures due to COVID-19 are adding to the concerns about America’s shortage of farm workers. The U.S. stopped processing non-emergency visas like H-2A in Mexico on March 18, 2020 out of health concern for U.S. Embassy employees. This immediately led to calls of alarm from agriculture stakeholders who are looking ahead to a busy spring and summer season.

The State Department later said it would continue processing H-2A applications and granted new flexibility so both new or returning workers would not be required to go to a U.S. consulate for an interview according to social distancing protocol. The DOL announced additional, temporary H-2A flexibilities in April 2020 to help prevent a labor shortage. However, governments around the globe continue to enforce travel restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus, potentially keeping workers from the harvest.

Some farmers are reporting that they are unable to get workers on time. In Canada, foreign workers have been delayed by border restrictions and canceled flights. Once they arrive, the Canadian government requires workers to be quarantined for 14 days (with pay) before they can begin work. The United States does not have a similar quarantine requirement but American farmers are concerned that fruit and vegetable harvests will still be impacted. Workers who have arrived are in the fields for longer hours due to the labor shortfall. Abad Hernandez Cruz, a Mexican farm worker in Georgia, told Reuters why he is working 12+ hours a day: “if the farm doesn’t produce, the city doesn’t eat.”

Agriculture is a critical industry

Agriculture has been deemed a critical industry during the pandemic. Americans are seeing firsthand the strengths and vulnerabilities of our complex food supply chain. One paradox is that farmers across the country have been forced to dump millions of gallons of milk and destroy millions of pounds of fresh food while some grocery store shelves go bare. The widespread closure of restaurants, hotels and schools has left farmers with no market for half of their crops due largely to the differences in Americans’ eating habits while quarantined at home.

So far, a lack of labor has not been a major force behind this food dumping. However, the situation could change if the pandemic persists longer into the harvest season or if farm workers begin testing positive for COVID-19. Farmers are also concerned that fewer workers will apply for H-2A visas over fears of catching the virus. Without enough workers, leafy greens, berries, and cucumbers would likely be the first crops to be left fallow, followed by peaches, plums, nectarines, and citrus.

The important role that guest workers play in ensuring America’s food supply during the pandemic underscores the interconnected nature of global agriculture trade. In reality, without H-2A and other immigrant labor, that romaine lettuce in Salinas would never make it to your salad bowl, or to other dinner tables around the world.


Sarah Hubbart provides communications strategy, content creation, and social media management for TradeVistas. A native of rural Northern California, Sarah has melded communications and policy throughout her career in Washington, D.C., serving in government affairs, issues management, and coalition building roles in the agricultural sector. She is an alum of California State University, Chico and George Washington University.

This article originally appeared on Republished with permission.

national parks


America’s Best Idea

One of the United States’ fastest-growing exports isn’t a product but rather, the opportunity to have an authentically American experience in the great outdoors of our National Parks. However, even these wild places can’t escape the economic impact of COVID-19.

Travel is the United States’ second-largest export, totaling $255 billion in 2019. Tourism has grown to be the quiet hero of trade. Visitor spending supports the broad “travel industry” of lodging, food service, recreation, transportation and retail, while also contributing tax revenue to local and state governments.

And increasingly, international travelers come here seeking a glimpse of America’s Best Idea – the National Parks – which offer natural beauty and distinctly American heritage that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Visitation to the National Park sites reached 318 million in 2018, an increase of 16 percent over ten years. One-third of international travelers to the U.S. included a visit to a National Park in their itinerary.

National Parks visitors

That’s the Ticket

Travelers from Asia have been a fast-growing segment of visitors to our public lands. In 2016, one million travelers from Asia Pacific countries visited the National Parks, with a large percentage coming from China. The number of Chinese tourists in America has fallen somewhat in recent years given trade tensions and the strength of the U.S. dollar making travel more expensive. But Chinese tourists are still the biggest spenders of all international travelers here, spending $34.6 billion in 2018.

International and domestic tourism to the National Parks is a major economic driver. Across the entire United States, the National Park Service found that visitor spending supported 329,000 jobs and $40 billion in economic output in 2018. More than 268,000 of those jobs were located in the parks’ gateway communities. The economies of these often small, remote towns are closely intertwined with the popularity of the parks. Tourists eat out at restaurants, they stay in hotels, they buy gas, they take home souvenirs – all purchases that support local jobs.

Local Landmarks

Page, Arizona is a perfect example of how tourism to public lands impacts local economies. About 7,500 people call this quiet town perched atop a red rock mesa their year-round home. But more than 4 million visit the region each summer to enjoy the nearby Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Lake Powell is the second-largest man-made lake in the United States and is a top destination for houseboat rentals. Millions more travel to Page to snap a selfie with Instagram-famous natural wonders like Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.

Given its central location, Page has also become a favorite home base for adventurers looking to explore the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, or the Grand Canyon, which is the most popular of all National Park sites among international travelers. U.S. Route 89 – also known as the National Park Highway since it connects seven western National Parks – runs right through town. The iconic wild west vistas of Monument Valley are also close by.

In 2018, Glen Canyon’s 4.2 million visitors spent $411 million in the region, supporting 5,030 jobs. More than 96 percent of that spending came from out-of-town visitors. That count was set to climb even higher after Lake Powell was named one of the Best Places to Visit in 2020 by Forbes. Spring break is traditionally the start of Page’s busy season and restaurants, tour companies, and hotels have been gearing up for the annual influx of visitors.

Parks spending supports jobs

Turning a Page

But then, COVID-19 happened. Page – like other gateway communities across the U.S. – is in uncharted territory. What happens when international borders are closed and domestic tourist travel is discouraged? How should towns with limited medical infrastructure prepare for the worst?

In an effort to slow the pandemic, the Administration banned international travel to the U.S. from China, Europe, Iran, Ireland and the UK. China is currently the third most important overseas market for U.S. tourism. The U.S .Travel Association warns that decreased travel due to COVID-19 could mean a loss of $355 billion in total travel spending – a negative economic impact six times that of 9/11.

So far, the National Park Service has decided to keep most parks open while waiving the entrance fee and enforcing new “social distancing” rules to protect the health of employees. However, individual park superintendents have the authority to modify operations as needed. Some parks – like California’s Yosemite, another especially popular destination among international tourists – have opted to shut down completely.

In Page, precautions are being taken to protect the community from COVID-19. Tour guides are pausing their operations. Restaurants are switching to take-out only. The Navajo Nation closed the entrance to Monument Valley. But the extent of the impact on this summer’s visitor numbers remains to be seen.

Covid losses due to travel

Global Icons Abandoned

And Page is not the only community navigating this new reality. Moab, a popular adventure destination in Utah for rock climbers and visitors to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, is encouraging tourists and spring breakers to stay home to prevent a strain on local hospital resources. The state of Colorado, home of Rocky Mountains National Park, now recommends that visitors “should seriously consider canceling nonessential travel”.

A similar scene is playing out around the world. Other countries are moving to ban entry for international travelers and popular sites like Mount Everest have been shut down. Meanwhile, communities that rely on tourism are coming to terms with the economic impact of the pandemic. The European Union estimates it is losing $1.1 billion each month due to lost tourism from China alone. Italy has also been hit hard. The world’s most iconic sights in Rome and Venice that are usually packed with crowds are now empty. It could mean a loss of $12.5 billion for Italy’s economy over the next three months.

These unprecedented times have made it easy to see the ripple effect tourism has in the economy. Communities are grappling with the critical challenge of protecting public health at the expense of one of their most important exports and one of the greatest sources of globally shared experiences – travel.


Sarah Hubbart provides communications strategy, content creation, and social media management for TradeVistas. A native of rural Northern California, Sarah has melded communications and policy throughout her career in Washington, D.C., serving in government affairs, issues management, and coalition building roles in the agricultural sector. She is an alum of California State University, Chico and George Washington University.

This article originally appeared on Republished with permission.