American farms should be in full swing right now. But some farmers are running behind, waiting on work visas for planters and pickers from out of the country. The H-2A visa program is delayed for the third year in a row.
It sounds like the setup to a bad joke: A professor and a doctor walk onto a farm.
Kathleen Terrence, a pediatrician, kneels in an onion field outside Lisbon, N.Y., with a bunch of kids. As they prepare to plant some 30,000 onions, they're all taking tips from Mark Sturges — but he's no farmer, either. He's a literary critic.
"Are you guys ready?" he asks them, laughing gently. "It's gonna be fun."
These are just some of the volunteers who stepped up to plant onions for Kent Family Growers, in upstate New York. But farm owner Dan Kent says he's worried about the rest of his growing season. The workers he hired are a month late.
"I am assuming that our guys are still in southern Mexico, where they live, waiting for word that they have an appointment at the U.S. Consulate somewhere on the border," Kent says.
Kent hired his three delayed laborers through the H-2A visa program for seasonal farm jobs. The program has fallen behind every year since 2014.
The reasons vary from year to year, but the outcome is the same. As a result, says Kristi Boswell with the American Farm Bureau, farmers have reported losses of up to $300,000.
"We have perishable commodities – blueberries, we're starting into pruning for our apples. Melons are also peaking up. And we don't have a good workforce," she says.
It seems to be getting worse. Congress has talked about stabilizing the farm workforce by making it easier for workers to become citizens. But immigration reform is pretty much stalled out. Farmers are growing more reliant on seasonal workers with H-2A visas.
Assistant U.S. Labor Secretary Portia Wu says applications to sponsor temporary farm workers shot up 80 percent over the last five years.
"We added staff, approved overtime. It was not nearly enough to meet the surge we saw," Wu says.
The law says farmers have to try and hire locally. But Boswell, with the American Farm Bureau, says domestic farm labor has dried up.
"We have a workforce that's aging," she says. "We have American workers that are not coming out to the farms to do the work. And we're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place."
That hard place is the H-2A program. Boswell says it's a bureaucratic nightmare to apply – and it's not cheap. Farmers have to provide housing, transportation, food for workers. Their pay is often higher than the state's minimum wage. In New York, it's an extra $2 an hour.
But Megan Horn with the advocacy group Farmworker Justice says the U.S. economy has gotten stronger. If farmers wanted to attract local workers, Horn says they'd have to pay more. "We're not seeing huge increases in [farm] wages, or very significant increases in wages at all," Horn says. "They've barely kept up with inflation."
Dan Kent says he has tried to hire locally, but it's never worked out. As for offering higher wages, Kent says his crew from Mexico will earn $11.74 an hour. When he factors in their food, housing and travel, it's more than what he takes for himself.
"For the sake of keeping this whole project alive, I'm going to try this," Kent says. "But until I can figure out a way to make more than my workers, I'm not apt to pay them $15 or $18 or $25 an hour. It would make me come unhinged."
Kent has reached out to several members of Congress for help. The House is weighing a bill that would streamline the H-2A visa program. But in the current political climate, it's not likely to take root anytime soon.