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Love it, like it or hate it, growers use H-2A program

Workers harvest artichokes at Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, CA.

Is the H-2A program popular? That depends on whether you are talking about affection or use.

The federal H-2A program certifies foreign workers for seasonal labor in agriculture. Although growers often complain that the process is cumbrous and expensive (requiring employers to pay for workers’ transportation to and from their native countries, for example), the program has greatly expanded over recent years.

In fiscal year 2010, fewer than 80,000 applications were processed under the program. In FY 2021, that number grew to 317,619, according to the same source. Indeed, this was almost double the 165,741 jobs certified in 2016.

The program requires growers to apply for labor 45 days in advance. That means 37 percent of H-2A applications are filed January through March, reports Rural Migration News.

Rural Migrations News notes: “Five states accounted for 51 percent of H-2A job certifications in FY21, led by Florida with 44,700, Georgia with 35,200, California with 33,300, Washington with 26,700, and North Carolina with 23,500. Almost 87 percent of the job offers were for crop farm laborers, followed by 6.4 percent for agricultural equipment operators, 4.2 percent for animal workers, and 1.1 percent for construction laborers.”

Furthermore, “H-2A workers are in the U.S. an average six months, so that 250,000 H-2A workers fill about 125,000 full-time equivalent jobs, which means that 11 percent of the 1.1 million FTE jobs in U.S. crop agriculture are filled by H-2A workers.”

Over 90 percent go to Mexicans.

Seven of the 10 largest applicants were farm labor contractors, the largest of these being California-based Fresh Harvest, with 6,100 certifications. One was a grower, Zirkle Fruit Company BB #:113456, with 2,900 certifications.

For the statistics above, the fiscal year runs from November through October.

Not many growers seem to love H-2A, but many have had to like it.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.