Thu, 06-Aug-2020
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 , 1:11 pm

U.S. Farmers Scramble for Help as COVID-19 Scuttles Immigrant Workforce

Farmers, who have been loyal supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, have grown more reliant on immigrant labor in recent years.
By SIN Bureau
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The novel coronavirus delayed the arrival of seasonal immigrants who normally help harvest U.S. wheat, leaving farmers to depend on high school students, school bus drivers, laid-off oilfield workers and others to run machines that bring in the crop.

As combines work their way north from the Southern Plains of Texas and Oklahoma, farmers and harvesting companies are having a hard time finding and keeping workers. Any delays in the harvest could send wheat prices higher and cause a scramble to secure supplies to make bread and pasta.

The United States is the world’s No. 3 exporter of wheat, a crop in high demand during the pandemic. A sustained labor shortage could impact the soy and corn harvests that start in September.

Harvesting companies and farmers interviewed by Reuters said their new U.S. employees have required more training and quit at higher rates than usual, as the combines head north and begin to bring in other major export crops.

While grain harvests are more automated than the labor-intensive fruit and vegetable industries, they are not immune to labor shortages.

Josh Beckley of Beckley Harvesting Inc, based in Atwood, Kansas, typically counts on migrants for about 30% of his workers. The most common visa for migrant agriculture workers is the H-2A, which allows workers to stay in the United States for months at a time to work on farms.

This year, Beckley had no foreign laborers on his crew. He has struggled to find replacement workers, with many Americans unwilling to sign up for months of traveling through the U.S. farm belt.

“They called back and said, ‘Hey man, I just don’t think I should leave home with all this stuff going on,’” he said.

Farmers, who have been loyal supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, have grown more reliant on immigrant labor in recent years. The Trump administration continues to issue agriculture visas while clamping down on tech workers, students and other groups.

Custom harvesters, or companies hired to gather crops by small-scale farmers who do not own their own equipment, also employ migrants. They roll up to a thousand combines across the U.S. Great Plains and Midwest at harvest time, handling about 30% of the U.S. wheat crop.

The harvest crews follow a trail that begins in south Texas and winds its way up the bread basket of the United States to the Canadian border.

The number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, the typical hiring period for harvesters looking for a labor force that starts cutting wheat in May. That was up 49% from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

But many of those workers were unable to make it to the United States by the time the harvesters set off on their annual trek, according to eight harvesting companies and farmers interviewed by Reuters. Travel restrictions, tighter border controls and virus fears around the globe led to delays in workers getting out of their home countries.

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Neha Mule

Neha writes articles on sectors including medicine, food, materials, and science & technology. A qualified statistician, she has the ability to observe and analyze the trends in global markets and write compelling articles that help CXOs in decision making. She is a bookworm and loves to read fiction, lifestyle, science and technology. Neha comes with 6 years of experience in content writing and editing that involves blog writing, preparation of study materials and OERs.

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