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H-2A Visa Program Grows in Importance as American Agriculture Faces Labor Shortage
Missouri Ag Connection - 06/01/2023

The H-2A visa program, which provides guest workers for agricultural purposes, is experiencing a significant rise in usage by American farmers, ranchers, and corporations. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that over 378,000 guest workers were authorized through the program in 2022, a substantial increase compared to just 103,000 a decade earlier. This upward trend is expected to continue, driven by the ongoing labor market pressures faced by the agricultural industry.

While California and Florida predominantly utilize H-2A workers for labor-intensive fruit and vegetable production, these guest workers also play a vital role in Midwest and Great Plains agriculture. In states like Illinois and Missouri, where finding local employees is challenging, farmers increasingly turn to the federal program to address their labor needs. The majority of these workers come from Mexico, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health.

Farmers in the St. Louis region, such as horseradish farmer Jeff Heepke, have embraced the H-2A program to overcome the shortage of available workers. Heepke's farm requires manual labor for planting and preparing the horseradish crop, and he struggled to fill positions locally. The H-2A workers provided the necessary workforce, ensuring the continued growth of his farm. Heepke's experience reflects the broader reality faced by many farmers who rely on guest workers to sustain their agricultural operations.

Organizations like Proteus Inc., a Des Moines-based nonprofit, advocate for agricultural workers and recognize the crucial role guest workers play in U.S. agriculture. They provide job training, educational services, and basic healthcare to both H-2A workers and local farmworkers, aiming to improve their wages and overall well-being.

While the number of guest workers is expected to continue expanding in the near term, some economists, like Jackson Takach from Farmer Mac, suggest there may be limits to how many H-2A authorizations the food system truly needs in the long run. However, for now, the program remains vital for filling the labor gap in American agriculture.

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