By Mayra Diaz Ballard
Farmers face constant dilemmas while trying to plant, cultivate and harvest their crops — most recently the unexpected visa delay and the ever-changing in weather patterns.
Both issues undoubtedly hindered and continue to affect many of the farmers’ timely handling of crop activities.
On July 24, I was informed by the Bureau of Consular Affairs that workers who were at the Consulate on July 21 would go through a three-day process to obtain a visa instead of the normal two-day process.
Throughout the years, I have heard firsthand accounts about the dilemmas of farmers and workers.
Being bilingual in English and Spanish, I worked nearly 15 years as an H-2A liaison between farmers and workers through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program.
This government-sponsored program “allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the US to perform agricultural labor or services which are temporary or seasonal in nature,” according to the Department of Labor.
I had direct contact with U.S. Department of Labor, the Kentucky Department of Labor, the Department of Home Land Security, and the American Consulate located in Mexico and other countries.
I coordinated with worker agencies and employers to ensure the timely arrival of migrant workers to their place of employment and documented all pertinent information regarding the workers.
With the development of the tobacco buy-out, the company I was working for closed. With the wealth of information I gained working in this field, I started my own H-2A business, Seasonal Hands LLC, in July 2006. I am currently performing the same tasks as mentioned above.
On July 25, the Bureau of Consular Affairs announced that no visas had been issued since July 22. Workers were able to go through their visa interviews as scheduled, but the American Consulate was not issuing visas.
Updates were posted regularly on their website, usvisas.state.gov, assuring farmers and workers that the visa delay was a technical issue affecting consulates worldwide.
After more than a week’s delay, the Consulate announced July 31 that Consular Consolidated Database started printing H2A workers’ visas “at a very slow pace.”
Visa interviews are usually a two-day process, and workers have enough money for travel expenses from his/her hometown to the American Consulate and on to the job site if issued a visa. Under a normal visa interview, the farmer is responsible to reimburse the worker for the least expensive means of travel plus a specified subsistence amount per day.
Both farmers and workers were concerned about costs if workers had to return home or stay at hotel.
As a result, farmers were at least 2-3 weeks behind with their crop activities. Many weren’t able to find available, willing and qualified U.S. workers to fill in the gap for the delayed H-2A workers.
A few farmers chimed in via email about how the delay affected their farm. Farmers’ names undisclosed to protect their privacy.
One farmer from Todd County said he had 85 acres of tobacco that needed to be cut and hung.
“Without the additional help being able to come when expected, this process will take longer,” the farmer said. “Consequently, the tobacco that is left in the field would lose its value since it would not be cut at the proper time.”
Another farmer in Allen County said his crop harvest definitely suffered because of the delay.
“Like other crops, tobacco has a time frame that it must be harvested in, and similar to fruit left in a refrigerator, once the time frame lapses, it quickly begins to rot and becomes worthless.
“The frustrating part on the situation is that we have complied with all regulations and standards required on the H-2A program, and have elected to utilize the H-2A program vs. hiring undocumented workers. With our full faith invested into the program, we have left ourselves no other options in terms of sourcing labor, and are left to stand idle and let our crops waste in the field.”
He continued, noting that his crop insurance only applied to natural hindrances.
“From a financial standpoint, we have implemented crop insurance on all of the crops we raise. The problem is that our crop insurance does not cover a crop that is not harvested due to lack of labor,” he said. “In an industry with extremely small margins, if we are unable to harvest our crop that we have invested several hundred thousands of dollars in, and unable to utilize the crop insurance, it will take us 5-10 years to recover, if we are ever able to recover.”
Most of all, he was upset that a glitch set back months’ worth of planning by farmers and workers.
“I know that there is a process to everything in government, but sometimes it feels like the government cannot see the forest for the trees. There has to be a solution to remedy a problem printing visas for workers who have already been vetted and approved through the standardized processes.”
Another issue that seems to be brewing every year is the drastic change in weather patterns. The lack of rain this summer posed a problem for farmers.
A Christian County farmer said he didn’t get much sleep because of watering, and a Todd County farmer’s wife said her husband was irrigating all day every day.
“He has been doing this for going on four weeks now, and has gotten very little sleep in these four weeks,” she said.
Parts of Kentucky finally experienced some scattered showers in early August. A few thunderstorms moved across the state in late September and early October, possibly offering some relief to our farmers.
How will the end of tobacco buyout checks impact the Pennyrile?
The Tobacco Transition Payment Program, also called the tobacco buyout, was established in 2005 to help tobacco quota holders and producers transition to the free market.
Tobacco quota holders and producers who enrolled in the program have been receiving annual payments since then; however, the program ended this year. The last tobacco buyout checks were distributed in October.
At the onset of the program, some opted to take a lump-sum settlement which totaled less than what they would have received had they accepted the annual payments since 2005.
For some, the annual checks have been so small that the end of payments will not affect them. For others, the last payment checks could impact them to the point of ending their tobacco production.
When the last checks are cashed, surviving tobacco growers will be on their own forced to find profits in a very competitive global market. For right now, reports show that those who remain in the business are thriving.
How will the last buyout check impact the Pennyrile? We want to hear from our tobacco farmers. Follow “Ag Families” on Facebook to tell us how the end of the tobacco buyout will affect your farm and family.