Agency delays in processing visas for workers who tend and harvest America's food crops are fast approaching crisis proportions.
This all but guarantee that crops will rot in the field on many farms this year, said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall April 21.
Communications with state Farm Bureaus across the nation have revealed worker shortages in more than 20 states.
"Many farmer members have called us and state Farm Bureaus asking for help," Duvall said. "They face serious hurdles in getting visas for workers in time to tend and harvest this year's crops. Paperwork delays have created a backlog of 30 days or more in processing H-2A applications at both the Department of Labor and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services."
Farmers depend on the H-2A agricultural visa program to fill gaps in the nation's ag labor system, but, Duvall said, the program is far from perfect. Processing and procedural delays, such as the government's use of U.S. mail instead of electronic communications, are leading to losses from unharvested crops.
Duvall and a group of other farmers and policymakers made his case on a conference call for the media. Also joining him were Gary Black, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture; Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; and farmers Bill Brim from Georgia, Carlos Castaneda from California and Jen Costanza from Michigan. Each of the farmers described the challenges they face with securing adequate workers to tend and harvest this year's crops.
Duvall said the Labor Department too often fails to comply with rules that require it to respond to farmers' requests before crews are needed.
"Crops can't wait on paperwork," Duvall said. "DOL is routinely failing to approve applications 30 days prior to the day farmers need workers. That delay, coupled with delays occurring at USCIS, places farmers in an impossible situation. We've heard from members who are already missing their window of opportunity to harvest. They are already facing lost revenue."
Duvall repeated AFBF's call for Congress to pass responsible immigration reform that provides farmers access to a legal and stable workforce. He also outlined possible solutions to the challenge, including modernizing agency H-2A approval procedures. He said DOL and USCIS both rely on sending documents to farmers by regular mail, which he called "unacceptable in 2016."