OMAHA (DTN) -- The Trump administration announced it would limit nonessential travel across the borders with both Canada and Mexico, but officials also assured that guest workers would continue to be allowed into the country.
During a briefing at the White House on Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to H-2A agricultural workers as one of the groups exempt from border closure with Mexico.
"We're real concerned about H-2A visas and particularly agricultural workers who are going to need to get across," Pompeo said. "We're going to make sure we do everything we can to keep that part of our economic lifeblood working between our two countries."
Pompeo said the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department will work together to keep essential industries moving across borders.
"We want to make sure we keep commerce between Canada, the United States and Mexico alive, functional and prepared for the day the economy bounces back like we expect that it will," he said.
Responding to questions from DTN, a spokesperson for the State Department on Friday afternoon said that each consulate and embassy office worldwide is reviewing its capacity to interview and complete H-2A visa applications. Offices will continue processing H-2A cases as much as possible while trying to ensure social distancing recommended by health authorities.
"We are well aware of the importance of the H-2 program to the economy and food security of the United States. We are reviewing all possible options," the State Department spokesperson said in an email to DTN. "As a matter of policy, consular sections worldwide prioritize H-2A applications, given the significant economic importance of these workers for farmers and small business."
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and a Georgia farmer, also stressed in a call with reporters Friday the importance of tamping down rumors that the country is facing a food shortage. Changes in consumer buying have caused empty spots on the shelves at grocery stores, but Duvall said supply lines are shifting as companies divert food from restaurants to grocers.
"We do not face a shortage of food. The rumor has persisted and it is causing unnecessary alarm," Duvall said.
Further, notices from both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation in recent days have listed agriculture and food production as essential critical infrastructure so facilities can remain open and truck drivers can receive waivers on hours of service to deliver goods.
"The food supply chain remains strong today, and farmers and ranchers are committed to maintain it," Duvall said.
While labor is the top issue spotlighted by AFBF, Duvall on Friday also pointed out the struggles facing farmers who sell at farmers markets around the country that are now shut down. Those farmers rely on those weekly sales, he said. Duvall also cited anecdotes of cattle producers losing significant value because of the market drop and vineyards that have lost their traditional sales to restaurants and bars.
"I share these examples because I want to convey that it's real, and it's personal and it's having a major impact on American agriculture," Duvall said.
AFBF staff also said they support some of the proposals in Congress for farm relief that would include raising USDA's current dollar authority for the Commodity Credit Corp. to help provide aid to different agricultural sectors. Duvall also said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue should consider another Market Facilitation Program for 2020.
"We are approaching the time we are starting to talk about having another MFP payment," Duvall said. He added, "We think we're getting real close to needing that."
AG LABOR QUESTIONS
Farm groups have raised concerns about the volume of H-2A workers allowed into the country after the State Department announced earlier this week it would suspend most visa applications at its embassies and consulate office around the world.
Under the earlier State Department advisory, the U.S. Consulate Office in Monterrey, Mexico, which handles the bulk of H-2A visas, will continue processing visas for returning workers. That's because those workers likely do not need an interview to return to the U.S. New H-2A visa applicants right now could be left out if Consulate offices are not able to interview those applicants.
Outside of the State Department, USDA and the Department of Labor announced they would allow nearly 20,000 H-2A and H-2B visa holders with expiring contracts to transfer to different employers. They are opening the data to allow H-2A employers to contact agents or attorneys for those workers to extend their contracts in the country if they choose to do so.
AFBF has noted more than 90% of H-2A workers come from Mexico, which would equate to about 237,000 or so workers last year. That would mean roughly 25,000 workers from other countries would remain unable to gain entry into the U.S., as well as excluding any new workers, even as H-2A demand grows roughly 15% each year.
AFBF was still stressing Friday that the U.S. State Department decision to halt visa applications for H-2A workers would put a dent in food production.
John Boelts farms fresh produce in the southwest corner of Arizona that supplies both the U.S. and Canada with lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables. He talked to reporters Friday about his farm's increasing dependence on H-2A workers. Farms around Yuma, Arizona, use anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 H-2A workers each year, and workers there now will soon move to areas such as the Salinas Valley of California for that area's harvest.
Boelts noted the guest workers are often allowed to stay for nine months, though agriculture is more of a year-round endeavor, even in crops such as vegetables. What's critical, Boelts said, is ensuring workers are on farms in a timely fashion, especially for crops that have a narrow "four- to five-day window" for harvest.
"Timely availableness of labor is essential," he said.
South Carolina peach and vegetable farmer Chalmers Carr brought in 817 workers last year and was expecting a comparable number this year. He noted all of his workers are returning, and the vast majority should be eligible for the visa waiver.
"Without the H-2A program, we would not be able to do what we do," Carr said.
Carr said his operation, one of the largest farms in South Carolina with annual sales around $50 million, already has 390 H-2A workers on the farm. Another 68 workers actually crossed into the U.S. on Thursday night without complications, Carr said. The bulk of Carr's workers are slated to arrive before mid-May when it's peak planting season for his vegetables such as bell peppers and broccoli.
"This is a critical time of the year as crops are going into the ground," Carr said. He added, "So if these crops are not planted in a timely manner, it's going to have a ripple effect throughout the supply chain."
Carr said the State Department restrictions still remain a problem for agriculture even if his farm will have its workers.
"This program has been growing 15% to 20% per year, and not every worker returns," he said. "So there is still going to be a lot of positions unfilled because we cannot bring new workers into the country."
Boelts said his harvest in Arizona has not been disrupted by any problems with trucks moving vegetables to processors. A CNBC reporter, however, said there are reports out of the ports in Long Beach, California, and Los Angeles that produce is rotting on docks due to ship cancellations from China.
U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc. also spotlighted some challenges for the industry, including the shutdown of state driver's license offices in different states that would make it harder to license drivers. Harvesters also travel in groups ranging from five to 100 people, and restrictions now on restaurants and grocers could affect custom harvesters as well.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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