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Interest grows in temporary ag worker program; bill may open it up to more farms

The H-2A temporary agricultural worker program is for seasonal workers. The Workforce Modernization Act that could provide open up the H-2A program to dairy and pork producers and other year-round farm employers.

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Cheyenne Protz, left, of Labor Consultants International, shared information on the H-2A visa program at Farmfest near Morgan, Minnesota, on Wednesday, April 3, 2022.
Jeff Beach / Agweek
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MORGAN, Minn. — MPI Farms isn’t raising hogs anymore, but the business is directly involved in supporting pork production. And like many businesses and farms, it is looking for people to fill jobs.

So perhaps it was good fortune that the MPI booth at Farmfest was just across from Labor Consultants International, a business that helps farms and businesses navigate the world of bringing in seasonal workers from other countries.

Ingrid Warmka, the office manager for MPI Farms in Amboy, Minnesota, says she is interested in the possibility of using workers that can come to the United States to work on H-2A visas.

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Ingrid Warmka of MPI Farms at Amboy, Minnesota, was at the 2022 Farmfest in Morgan, Minnesota.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

On the labor situation, she says she’s “hopeful.”

“We’re seeing a lot of applicants. We’ve made some great hires lately. It was pretty dire there for a while,” Warmka said. “But not hopeful enough that I’m not willing to try something like that (H-2A) that would make a difference.”

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MPI Farms, about 20 miles south of Mankato, Minnesota, started as a hog farm, but now has found its niche in helping hog farmers maintain their buildings, spread manure, transport animals and other services.

The H-2A temporary agricultural worker program is for seasonal workers, and while MPI has about 50 full-time employees, it employs extra help for the spring and fall manure application seasons and building repair during the warmer months.

“Things that require hands-on work that’s hard to find these days,” Warmka said.

That makes MPI eligible to hire H-2A workers, which typically come to the U.S. to work for 10 months at a time.

Warmka spoke with Cheyenne Protz, who was at the booth for Labor Consultants International, a consulting firm from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, that works with employers from across the country to bring in foreign workers.

She said most workers are looking for year-round employment, making seasonal jobs harder to fill.

“So with the shortage of workers, we bring in foreign workers who are already trained in all the crops and commodities and they come in for their contract period and then they’ll go home,” Protz said. “Their goal is to ultimately be asked back year after year.”

Because employers are required to pay for the transportation of H-2A workers, most workers come from Mexico. Protz said South Africa has a lot of well-qualified equipment workers and Guatemala is working on improving the skills of their workers to get them eligible for U.S. labor programs.

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Protz’s employer guides employers through the process of getting workers, helping with paperwork and explaining details and possible pitfalls.

Some things for potential H-2A employers to know:

  • Jobs must be seasonal.
  • Employer is required to pay for travel in and out of country.
  • Employer must provide free housing.
  • Employer must provide a way for workers to get to work, a bank and a grocery store once a week. 

Despite international travel restrictions, Protz said 2020 saw interest in H-2A worker explode. “That has not let up,” she said, and vaccines have helped make travel easier again.
She said row crop farmers make up most of their clients, with the seasonal requirement making it harder for hog and dairy farms to qualify.

She said one thing she was explaining to Farmfest visitors was the program does not take jobs away from local workers. Employers are required to hire eligible U.S. workers if they are available, and jobs are automatically listed on state job listings.

H-2A has no cap on the number of workers who can come in to the U.S. and no minimum time for workers. For example, Protz said blueberry farms have an intense need for workers during a harvest season that is only weeks long and will use H-2A workers to fill those jobs. H2B and other Department of Labor programs have a cap.

There are more than 250,000 workers on H-2A visas in the U.S., and use of the program has more than tripled in the last decade, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development announced that Minnesota's unemployment rate hit 1.8%, making history with the lowest monthly unemployment rate that any state has ever reported.

The labor situation bubbled up in political forums at Farmfest, including a discussion on farm bill negotiations.

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“Our labor situation is in dire straits,” said Terry Wolters, a Pipestone, Minnesota, farmer and past president of the National Pork Producers Association, who said there needs to be some reform to address labor issues. “We’re obviously relying more on foreign-born workers.”

The Workforce Modernization Act that could provide some of that reform. It has been passed by the U.S. House, but needs action in the Senate. It would open up the H-2A program to dairy and pork producers and other year-round farm employers.

“Let them be here, let them be here legally,” Wolters said of foreign workers. “They want to come to work. We’re a declining population. We’ve got less and less workers all the time. If we don’t support them (foreign workers), we won’t have them.”

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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