Diane Charlton

The coronavirus pandemic has caused some major blows to the agriculture industry. Another headache that could potentially be felt by producers across the region is the fact that travel restrictions could make difficult or even curtail the issuing of H-2A visas. This means extremely valuable and skilled farm laborers may be stuck south of the boarder.

Montana and neighboring states are relatively lucky. Compared to fruit and vegetable production the crops commonly grown across the region don’t require the large number of H-2A workers. Even so, H-2A workers are still critical to the agriculture economy in the region as they often irrigate crops and provide general labor. Statistics from 2018 stated 904 H-2A workers requested to work in Montana and 878 ended up certified and able to actually do so.

For Montana in particular, H-2A workers generally come from Mexico. In mid-March President Trump ordered the U.S.-Mexico border be closed to all but “essential” travelers. The timing couldn’t have been more inconvenient as the months of March and April are usually when H-2A workers start to trickle across the border and begin work in the agriculture sector.

“As we know, the timing of agriculture is very sensitive so having workers when you need them is imperative,” stated Diane Charlton, assistant professor in Montana State University’s department of agriculture economics and economics.

Initially, 2020 H-2A visas were only going to be issued to those workers who had previously worked in the U.S. as a farm laborer. New H-2A visas were not to be issued. Charlton, who specializes in the economics of labor and migration in agriculture went on to say, exceptions have been made to that hard-lined ruling.

“Essentially they are not doing in-person interviews for H-2A visas at this time. So if somebody already has an H-2A visa there is a good chance their application can be passed without an interview this year,” Charlton said.

In order to offer some relief to the problem, individual consulates have the discretion to waive the in-person interview process if they deem there is no apparent reason for the visa applicant’s ineligibility. Although the exception greatly helps, there is still a bottle-neck situation.

Heidi Hirschy, a cattle producer outside of Wisdom, Mont., brings five H-2A workers to her operation each year to help with irrigation, fence building and haying. For 2020 she was expecting three returning workers and two new ones. The three returning workers were able to get across the border and miraculously, it timed out alright for one of the new workers to make it across as well. Hirschy is struggling to get her fifth contracted worker to her operation.

“He had a scheduled appointment and took a 17 hour bus ride to the consulate and they turned him away. They told him to drive all the way back home and come back in a week or week and a half,” she said.

Aside from the frustration at the border, there is also the concern that these works could be exposed to the coronavirus while traveling from Mexico to their U.S. destinations. Hirschy said she was definitely concerned about her worker’s exposure to the virus.

“I talked with Justo, one of my returning workers, and he assured me the virus hadn’t hit his area in Mexico. They all traveled up in a van so they weren’t in the general public but still I was really careful when they arrived. I usually always shake their hands to welcome them but I didn’t this time,” she stated.

It may be easy to think that with the potential shortage of H-2A workers, coupled with the growing number of unemployed Americans, the two voids could complement each other. However, Charlton isn’t so sure.

“In 2008 during the recession, the unemployment rate obviously shot up but we didn’t see an increase in native born, U.S. people going and doing farm work,” Charlton pointed out.

It’s no surprise that agriculture work is very demanding and the skills required to be successful at the job are fairly specialized. It is highly likely the 2008 economic recession offered a foreshadowing to today’s current state of affairs.  

It is unclear at this point how the impending labor shortage will effect commodity prices or product availability at grocery stores. Like most side effect of the coronavirus, the county will just have to wait and see while hoping for the best.