The grocery store pipeline was nicely filled a few weeks ago, but demand is emptying it quickly. It’s the kind of demand the industry expects to see pre-Thanksgiving, but it is unexpected and irrational in mid-March. Panic buying is creating paper goods shortages, of course. People fearing the social embarrassment of unwiped backsides a month from now are getting into fistfights over the last few rolls of Charmin. Worse, they’re creating an absurd shortage of perishables. The perimeter of every supermarket, those places where shoppers find fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meat, poultry and seafood are being stripped clean by the overly anxious.
When the ‘shelter-in-place’ orders are finally rescinded and life returns to what’s being called a new but unknowable normal, an appalling amount of perishables gone bad will be tossed in the trash. Shoppers returning to supermarkets in search of fresh food might find sparsely filled cold cases. Salad fixings could be rationed and fresh fruit available only after being transported from distant shores at an extremely high carbon cost. Vegetable prices could make them a luxury item.
Not that our farmers and ranchers failed to grow enough fresh produce. Harvesting it as it ripens will be the critical, missing step. Agriculture is reliant on the H-2A guest worker program, which is saddled with COVID-19-related delays in processing and approval. Recent events have surpassed the usual slowdowns of routine bureaucratic paperwork. Effective March 18, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and all U.S. consulates in Mexico suspended immigrant and non-immigrant visa services because of COVID-19 inspired social distancing. Conversely, that same day, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor to help find both foreign and domestic workers for agriculture during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ensuring minimal disruption for our agricultural workforce during these uncertain times is a top priority for this administration,” Perdue said. “President Trump knows that these workers are critical to maintaining our food supply and our farmers and ranchers are counting on their ability to work. We will continue to work to make sure our supply chain is impacted as minimally as possible.”
But the primary resource for so many of our seasonal farm workers – Mexico – is closed for business. At a time when the H-2A process should be streamlined, the government is caught saying yes on one hand and no on the other. For the possible impact of the worker shortage, read this short 2011 clip from The Olympian, a Washington state newspaper, discussing a crackdown on migrant labor which left much of the state’s apple harvest rotting on the ground or unpicked that year.
• In Alabama, where a new state law is aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, the construction, agriculture and poultry industries all report huge shortages of labor.
• A study by the University of Georgia this year found that the state had a shortage of 5,244 workers in the fields.
• In California, farmers have complained of too few workers to pick the avocados.
• In Texas, growers have appealed for more employees to help pick their organic crops and vegetables, with little luck.
(Governor) Gregoire returned home Friday after leading a 15-member delegation of farm group representatives to Washington. They lobbied members of Congress to oppose a Republican bill that would force employers to use a federal database called E-Verify to determine whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States.
In Washington state, the governor and farm groups want nothing to do with it, for one simple reason: Roughly 66,000 of the 92,000 workers who are needed for seasonal harvests – nearly 72 percent – are “document challenged,” according to the state’s farm groups.
That’s a nice way of saying they’re in the United States illegally.
Mexico is the largest source of H-2A Ag workers to the U.S., sending more than 70% of the men and women needed by American agriculture to function. Most of them are needed this spring with estimates of over 100,000 workers required to help with harvests and planting in April and May. Unfortunately, there is no date set for regular operations to begin again at consulates in Monterrey, the most significant entry point, or other locations in Mexico.
The solution to the migrant labor problem that harmed the Washington apple crop still haunts American agriculture almost a decade later. We must find a way to open the door to farm labor from south of the border or face enormous shortages and high food costs. It’s up the government and farm groups to figure it out. Let’s not wait until the problem is critical this fall. A tired and ill-humored electorate will not be in a forgiving mood.