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The Future of Farming: Seasonal vs. permanent workers

pbp future of farming

As a rule, labor shortages are more acute for seasonal workers than for permanent ones.

This is true for GoldRiver Orchards based in Escalon, CA, which has been growing walnuts in California’s northern San Joaquin Valley since 1912. “We’re okay for the supply of our permanent, year-round labor force,” comments Don Barton.

Yet during walnut harvest season, which usually takes place from the last 10 days of September to the first 10 days of November, his operation roughly doubles its workforce.

“For the fourth quarter of this calendar year, we’re definitely concerned about the availability and quality of labor,” he says.

For the California Fresh Fruit Association, LeMay notes, “This year there has been enough available labor, though it continues to be tight. Wage rates continue to increase.”

Christina Morton, director of communications for the Maitland, FL-based Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), BB #:153753 sums up the situation in Florida: “Domestic workforce availability is a constant challenge, and the situation is not getting any better.  

“Use of the H-2A guest worker visa program is at an all-time high nationally, and Florida continues to be the number-one user of the program,” she says.

“Right now,” Morton adds, “it’s the only tool in the grower’s toolbox for securing an adequate workforce due to the lack of domestic workers.”

Farm Workforce Modification Act

The future of farm labor in the United States hinges on one piece of legislation: the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed twice in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support but has yet to be acted upon by the Senate.

What would this bill do?

The version passed by the House in 2021 would establish a certified agricultural worker status, which would be granted to guest workers who meet certain criteria. First, they would need to perform at least 1,035 hours of agricultural labor during the two-year period prior to March 8, 2021.

Second, workers would need to prove they were inadmissible, deportable, or under a grant of deferred enforced departure or temporary protected status on that date, and third, that they’ve been continuously present in the United States from that date until receiving certified agricultural worker status, according to a Congressional summary of the bill.

The summary explains that the bill would also change the H-2A program.

It will modify the method for calculating and adjusting the H-2A worker minimum wage, specify how an employer may satisfy requirements in attempting to recruit U.S. workers, require H-2A employers to guarantee a certain number of minimum work hours, and make the program available for agricultural work that is not temporary or seasonal.

Agricultural interests have continually pressed for action. In August, for example, Western Growers Association (based in Irvine, CA) launched a YouTube video calling upon the Senate to pass this bill, tying rising food prices to farm labor shortages.

Nevertheless, Morton says “there are concerns over some components of the bill. There’s also some movement in the Senate to introduce a bill very soon that would, hopefully, address outstanding inadequacies in the legislation passed by the House.”  

This is an excerpt from the cover story in the November/December 2022 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue.

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.