by Enrico Villamaino

The ongoing labor shortage in America is taking an especially hard toll on farmers. According to Cheyenne Protz, in addition to the recent dearth of job seekers in the marketplace, the temporary nature of agricultural labor keeps many potential applicants away.

“Only 5% of our clients report having someone applying for their posted job openings. And a lot of the time these applicants are just doing it to check a box off for their unemployment benefits. Most of those who do apply never follow up,” she said.

Protz is an H-2A visa coordinator for Labor Consultants International (LCI). The H-2A visa program was designed by the federal government to provide ag businesses with a legal way to keep up with their labor needs by utilizing temporary visa workers.

Founded over 20 years ago in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, LCI has clients in all of the lower 48 states. Protz said that while LCI represents large-scale operations seeking 300+ visas at a time, the vast majority of her clients are smaller, individual growers. These operations usually seek to retain two to five guest workers. Her job is to help these smaller operators navigate the H-2A application process which, under the law, must take no longer than 75 days from start to finish.

(L- R) H-2A Coordinator Cheyenne Protz along with H-2A client managers Kayla James and Monica Thode represent LCI at conventions and trade shows nationwide, helping small farmers get the labor support they need. Photo by Enrico Villamaino

“There’s a lot that anyone looking to secure H-2A visas has to do. We help them make sure that that goes as smoothly as possible,” she said. Prospective hiring businesses must ensure they have adequate housing for the workers as well as finance their travel to and from the farm, which Protz said averages $1,000 per worker. In addition, the application must spell out that the nature of work that is to be performed is in fact seasonal and not year-round. It is most common for the businesses she works with to have a March to November season. Finally, the business has to demonstrate in its application that American workers are not being deprived of the jobs in question.

Despite working with a large number of guest workers, Protz said the pool is composed almost entirely of migrants from just two countries. Approximately 60% of the workers LCI helps to place are from Mexico. The remaining 40% stem from a somewhat surprising source. “There’s been a recent trend, due to the need for heavy ag equipment operators and experienced beekeepers, of a large number of guest workers coming from South Africa,” she said.

The H-2A visa is valid for one year, although it can be renewed and a guest worker can be sanctioned to work in the U.S. for up to three years. After that time has expired, the worker in question must return to their home country for a minimum of 90 days.

The visas can also be transferred from one host farm to another. Protz said her firm helps with this as well. “We work with a lot of itinerant beekeepers, and it’s not uncommon for them to finish up a year’s work at one location, and then be offered work at an apiary somewhere else in the U.S.,” she said. “We keep getting people to the work they need and workers to the farms that need them.”

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