SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Jennifer Kinney spends a lot of time and energy making sure there are people to harvest flowers and vegetables at Twin Gardens Inc. and Piscasaw Flowers in northwestern Illinois.
She has worked with the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program, filling out the forms and following the letter of the legislation to bring Mexican workers here. The program requirements include providing housing and guaranteeing a certain amount of pay.
Twin Garden Farms, operated by George and Ruth Ahrens in Harvard, Illinois, since 1954, couldn’t find enough local laborers and sought foreign laborers, Kinney said.
Having labor to do the physical work is essential to the McHenry County farm, said Kinney who has be involved in this aspect for six years.
They need about 65 workers in August and have close to 90 workers at times to help with the intense workload of seed production for TGF-Mirai Sweet Corn, a popular hybrid developed in Harvard in the 1990s, and the other crops.
“It’s back-breaking work,” Kinney said.
At the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference on Jan. 10, Kinney attended a talk about labor and migrant workers led by Adam Nielsen, director of national legislation and policy for Illinois Farm Bureau. She said she wanted to see how she could volunteer for efforts to let legislators know how important this issue is to farmers and how much improvements are needed.
One motivating factor: In following the temporary ag workers program rules, her labor costs went up about 150 percent in one year.
“When we went from local labor to H-2A labor, our costs went up between 100-150 percent. This is because we not only had to increase the wage for the H-2A workers, but also for our local workers, some of whom now earn more than $15 per hour for simple field harvesting,” she said.
The crop and flower farm was also impacted by the “three-quarter rule” for temporary workers from outside the country, which means the employer must pay the workers at least 75 percent of the hours in the contract — even if there is no work.
“So as farmers, we are forced to guess, many months in advance, how many man hours will be required in our extremely varied season,” Kinney explained.
She continues to look for a better way to hire.
“When we switched from using a third party contractor to bring in H-2A labor to bringing in our own H-2A workers, our costs went down by 30 percent,” she said.
Nielsen said it looked like the government might take action last year, but the border wall is dominating all talk of immigration now.
“There is so much focus on the border wall and security, there is failure to see how important this is to our economy,” he said. “Late last year it looked like something was going to happen. It goes in fits and starts.”
The H-2C Ag Immigration Program proposed in April of last year made it out of the judicial committee and looked like it might be headed to law if Congress was supportive.
“When it got to the floor, it got sucked into the border security debate and went nowhere,” Nielsen said.
He isn’t hopeful that anything will move ahead soon with the new Congress.
In speaking at the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference, he said temporary labor has long been an important issue to IFB members — he was been working on it for a decade. In addition to crops, getting labor for dairy and other livestock operations is a challenge, he said.
Farmers did get some reassurance from President Donald Trump a few days later. On Jan. 14, at the American Farm Bureau National Convention in New Orleans, Trump addressed the issue of the border wall and the related partial government shutdown. While he emphasized the importance of tough border security, he said he is aware that American farmers need laborers.
“I want people to come in legally,” he said. “You need people to help you with the farms. I’m going to make it easier for them to come in and work the farms.”
Nielsen encouraged Kinney to contact her congresswoman and let her know about the farm’s need for laborers and her experience with hiring. The new Congress members will certainly be lobbied by others with different agendas on immigration, he said.
“The time is never right to do this,” Nielsen said. “There are a lot of false starts” and IFB wants to see a new proposal that has “legs” to be successful, but it doesn’t want to let people forget about the farm labor issue.
“Illinois State Vegetable Growers Association is ready to assist when you are ready,” Carl Duewer, president the association, said at the conference.
He said IFB has a strong voice and the Illinois vegetable growers’ association is supportive of their efforts.
“I wish there were more voices out there explaining what good people these immigrants are and what good employees they are,” Duewer said.