Access to farm labor continues to be a significant challenge for specialty crop growers,1 who face challenges filling positions with domestic workers. This is due in part to the physical and temporary nature of employment, and the ability of employers to offer salaries that are competitive against employment opportunities in other sectors. Farm wages were only 59% of the wage rate of comparable positions in other industries in 2020.2
The decline in the farm labor supply has resulted in a growing reliance on the H-2A temporary agricultural program. This program allows employers to recruit foreign workers to fill seasonal positions. During the last decade, the number of H-2A visas issued increased at an approximate average rate of 17% annually, quadrupling from 65,345 in 2012 to 257,898 in 2021 (Figure 1). This growth was stronger in the specialty crop sector. The expansion in H-2A employment is, in part, the result of an increase in the number of workers petitioned and the number of operations—including small and medium-scale—employing H-2A workers.3 The H-2A program has its challenges and can be costly for producers who must provide transportation and housing for H-2A workers and pay the state’s Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which is often higher than the local worker hourly pay.
With an aging farm labor force3, agricultural labor issues are likely to persist, posing a significant limitation to the specialty crop industry. Mechanization and immigration policies that improve the H-2A program and make it more accessible for farmers will be crucial for maintaining the competitiveness of the U.S. industry.
1 American Vegetable Grower. 2020 State of the Vegetable Industry Survey. Available online: https://www.growingproduce.com/tag/2020-state-of-the-vegetable-industry/
2 US Department of Agriculture. Economic Research service. Farm Labor. Available online: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-labor.aspx3 2019 State of the Vegetable Industry Survey – American Vegetable Grower Magazine. Available online: https://www.growingproduce.com/vegetables/which-issues-have-your-attention-2019-state-of-the-vegetable-industry/