While the apple harvest in Washington state is in full swing, everyone knows the labor intensive picking is always stressful, but increasingly orchard owners are just worried if they can afford to pick all the ripe fruit. Rob Valicoff, owner of Valicoff Fruit Company which grows 1,700 acres of apples, peaches, cherries, apricots and pears, relies almost entirely on temporary foreign guest workers. Of his 220 employees this fall, 200 were brought in from Mexico through the H-2A Visa program.
Valicoff says the program is expensive and inflexible, yet he’s forced to use it because otherwise he would not have enough workers to harvest his fruit: “It’s kind of scary, because these farms got so large that the payrolls on any given week are huge.”
A record 250,000 H-2A Visa holders are working this year on U.S. farms. The 25,000 of them working in Washington state are making at least $15.03 per hour. That’s $3.03 above the state minimum wage. Additionally farmers had to pay for their visas, provide housing and transport them from their homes to the farm and then back home when the season is over. Valicoff figures his cost is $1,500 per H-2A worker before he’s picked a single apple.
“At some point enough has to be enough,” Valicoff says, “We may have to produce less, because it requires so much labor.”
The Trump Administration apparently agrees. The Department of Labor has proposed several significant changes to the H-2A program which will make it less expensive and more flexible for farmers.
Farmers have seen worker shortages get much more extreme in recent years. They attribute it to tighter border security, an aging immigrant farmworker population and record-low unemployment. The H-2A program was designed in the 1980’s to be a stop-gap, but increasingly farmers are relying more on guest workers than farmworkers already in the U.S.