BOZEMAN, Mont. — The COVID-19 is helping underline the dependence of America on foreign-born or temporary guest laborers from other countries.

Diane Charlton, a Montana State University labor researcher with the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics, says that prior to the pandemic, in 2019 about 10% of agricultural production workers in the U.S. were working on H-2A guest worker visas.

Charlton says some of the interview requirements for the H-2A have been loosened because of the pandemic.

H-2A workers have risen since 2011, including significant numbers in 2019 in upper Great Plains states: Minnesota had 2,006 H-2A workers in 2019, with major tasks in fruit, vegetable and horticulture. North Dakota had 1,870, in categories led by agricultural equipment operators, grains, corn, general farm work, and honey. South Dakota had 1,621, with more than half in livestock, as well as grains, general farm work, and honeybees. Montana had 984, in 2019, with the biggest share in livestock; “grains/pulses/hay,” as well as potatoes or sugar beets.

Nationally, the H-2A farm labor peak demand is around July, Charlton said.

“From a consumer perspective, we eat a lot of those very labor-intensive crops,” she said. Some of the crops are more dependent than some others. “If things get a little more relaxed in the next few months, we might have fewer difficulties finding farmworkers and H-2A workers. But it’s just a day-by-day,” she said.

Missing data

“Because so many people work temporarily, it takes a lot of sources to try to figure out what the actual number of full-time workers were or are at a certain location,” Charlton said. Similarly, she said it’s unclear how many of the certified H-2A workers from South Africa or elsewhere have been unable to get here this year because of travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite their prominence in the workforce, researchers have relatively little data on the financial or other motivations driving H-2A workers, Charlton said.

There is more economic literature on migration — what each individual has a cost-benefit analysis, comparing what they earn at home versus staying at home and how much they can save by not spending on housing, and how much they can send home in remittances. If they grew up on a farm, they might be trying to invest in their home or farm, she said. They might be paying for health care for a family member.

Workers coming into the U.S. on the H-2A program develop networks where successful visits lead to others from the same regions. South Africans may prefer positions in the northern Great Plains because of the common language or similar culture. “Migration networks are very important — who you know,” she said. “Migrating somewhere new is both scary and you might have fewer resources. But if you know someone there, they can help you with a lot of the resources and a lot of unknowns.”

Mexican shifts

One of the reasons the H-2A popularity has risen is because fewer rural Mexicans actually work in agriculture every year. “So this labor supply to U.S. farms is getting smaller. About two-thirds of our farm labor supply comes from rural Mexico,” she says.

The gross domestic product per capita and education are rising in Mexico, and worldwide. As fewer Mexicans are migrating to the U.S. for farm work, this reduces the number of friends to support others that might want to come here.

On the other side of the coin, the U.S. has had relatively little investment in labor-saving technology in the U.S. in recent decades. In the 1970s, the University of California-Davis famously developed a tomato harvester. The California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal aid group for farmworkers, sued the university for using U.S. Department of Agriculture funds to develop a technology to put tomato pickers out of work, calling them “welfare machines.”

“Now that we’re starting to notice that fewer people want to work in agriculture, we’re starting to see that these labor-saving technologies aren’t displacing workers, they’re actually making the workers who remain in agriculture more productive,” Charlton said. Technology can affect the wages of farmworkers, too, if each worker has equipment that makes them more productive, she said.

Machine-aids

Charlton sees a future of increasingly mechanically harvested crops, although fruits and vegetables are more difficult to mechanize. The workers will need to fix or maintain machines and as they become more productive, their value increases and their wages can rise. “There could be a lot of positive impacts of new technology in agriculture,” she said.

An economic recession isn’t likely to drive domestic Americans into fieldwork. The Great Recession, which technically ran December 2007 to June 2009, with effects through the third quarter of 2011, didn’t lead to domestic American workers taking farm labor jobs.

Charlton cited news reports from 2011 when a Colorado onion farmer cut his H-2A workforce by one-third, anticipating that a 10% unemployment rate in his area would allow him to find workers locally. He hired workers that started at 6 a.m. and quit after six hours.“Some simply never came back and gave no reason,” he said. Some simply said the work was “too hard.”

Agriculture’s outcry

On Jan. 2, 2020, a coalition (including the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, as well as producer groups specific to potatoes, milk, fruits, and vegetables, asked for changes in H-2A policies.

The coalition since 2014 has warned that Americans are eating more imported fresh produce than ever before, in large part because U.S. fresh produce growers lack labor. The imports have grown by nearly 90% in the past 20 years. If U.S. growers had the same market share they had in 1998 to 2000, they would have had an added $4.9 billion in added farm income, with 89,300 more jobs in 2012 alone. “Labor alone can explain as much as $3.3 billion in missed GDP growth in 2012,” the report said.