By the time you read this, Kevin Eason figures he will have lost $750,000.
Eason, a blueberry farmer in the South Georgia town of Alma, in January used the U.S. Department of Labor’s migrant worker visa system to request 100 migrant workers from Mexico. None have arrived yet.
Russ Goodman in January requested 500 migrant workers from Mexico to arrive at his 600-acre Homerville farm on March 1 to pick blueberries. So far, he has 30.
“A week or two is a delay. Two months is you’ve lost your crop,” said Goodman, who estimates he has already lost several hundred thousand dollars.
Goodman and Eason are just two of an untold number of Georgia farmers facing millions of dollars in losses as crops rot on the vine due to lack of labor for harvest.
The Georgia Department of Agriculture and the American Farm Bureau Federation say the U.S. Department of Labor is woefully behind on processing applications for foreign migrant worker contracts and the feds’ failure is costing farmers more in lost crops than previous years.
Even after the Labor Department approves a request, the application is then sent via U.S. mail to a Department of Homeland Security office in California for a final security review.
While the federal agency in January warned users that its Office of Foreign Labor Certification had a problem that would cause delays, the department has yet to explain why a system designed to approve requests 30 days before farmers need the workers in the field is months behind schedule. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said last week that the reason for the delays is not as important as what is being done to fix it.
“We’ve got a broken system,” Black said. “We’re 20 years down the road and all that’s really changed is the calendar.”
Congress created the H-2A immigration visa program in the 1990s as a way to verify that migrant workers who enter the United States for temporary or seasonal agricultural work are not criminals and that they are monitored and treated properly while in the country. The program is also designed to make sure farmers do not turn to immigrant labor if American workers are willing and available to do the work.
The American Farm Bureau Federation reported in April that the H-2A program is processing twice as many applications as a decade ago and that requests are up 13 percent this year from 2015. The increased demand is also contributing to the delays.
Department of Labor data show only 90 percent of H-2A applications received in the second quarter of the federal government’s fiscal year were processed in a “timely” manner, meaning 30 days before the farmer says he or she needs the workers to arrive. That’s down from 99 percent in the first quarter.
More than 74,500 applications have been processed since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, including more than 6,000 from Georgia — the third-most in the country.
In 2015, the department processed 97 percent of nearly 140,000 applications on time.
“The department is monitoring the situation and no additional information is available,” Lindsay Williams, a Department of Labor spokesman, said when asked why applications are taking longer this year.
Many Georgia farmers appear to be falling victim to whatever is causing the agency to see its record of processing applications fall from the first to the second quarter. The impact, however, is farmers following the rules and watching their crops die.
“An American producer is abiding by the law (and) our government is failing them,” Black said.
Goodman, the Homerville blueberry farmer, is in a race against the clock. Every week the price of blueberries falls as the end of the annual harvest nears. The highest prices have already come and gone, he said.
“Every day you’re not getting your blueberries picked you’re losing money,” he said. “We’re on the cusp of not being able to harvest the crop. If we don’t get some help by the end of this week, we’re probably going to have to try and pick it by machines, and that’s not ideal at all.”
Machine pickers are not suited to picking delicate blueberries. A lot of the fruit ends up squished or on the ground. Eason, the Alma farmer, estimates using a machine would cost him 25 percent of his crop.
“It’s at epidemic proportions,” Goodman said. “The H-2A program … I don’t know what they have to do, but they have to strengthen that program. I don’t think they understand. We’ve got a time-sensitive crop. You’ve got a week or two-week period that you can harvest it and get paid for it. That’s gone.”
Meanwhile, thousands of migrant workers are waiting for clearance in Monterrey, Mexico, including at least 150 that Bill Brim expected at his farm in Tifton.
“I don’t know what they’re trying to do other than catch up,” said Brim, who farms 6,000 acres of produce at Lewis Taylor Farms.
Brim said there are many changes that could be made to make things more efficient. One is simple: allow applications to be sent via the Internet instead of U.S. mail. Another is to fast-track workers who have been to the United States regularly over several years.
“I’ve been doing the H-2A program since 1997,” Brim said. “We’ve been doing it and doing it right. It looks like they could fast-track some of these people who have been coming back and forth to us since 1997. It’s not like they don’t know these people are good people that come in and don’t cause any problems.”
The farmers have reached out to Black for help. He in turn has reached out to U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, as well as U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop and others to try to prod the feds along. So far, little is helping.
“Our office has received a larger number of requests for assistance than usual from farms needing help with H-2A visas,” Isakson spokeswoman Amanda Maddox said. “Considering how rare it is that we receive this type of request, the half a dozen or so requests that we’ve received over about a month’s time is significant. We cannot pin down the exact source of the problem but share in our farmers’ frustration and are happy to do everything possible to help expedite matters when we are contacted.”
Brim has some workers already on his farm but is waiting for an additional 150. He’s already started harvesting broccoli, cabbage and cucumbers. But without the rest of his help he knows he won’t get to it all.
“We get really nervous when we can’t get our crop,” Brim said, “because if we can’t get our crop, it means we’ll go bankrupt.”