Jack’s farm has used South African guest workers since 2009, and they make up about 40% of the farm’s equipment operators, which go from planting season to harvest. The farm became thin out the last harvest, so this year Jacks applied for six guest worker visas for farm workers from South Africa.
The South African COVID-19 variant arrived in the United States on Thursday with two confirmed cases in South Carolina from people who tested earlier in January. The new coronavirus variant has raised alarms among health officials as it is believed to be more transmissible.
Kassi Tom-Rowland, who makes human resources for Tom Farms in Leesburg, Indiana, said early Thursday that her family’s farm plans for four equipment operators to help with the farm, with the first pair of workers arriving in late February. The workers will work the entire growing season for Tom Farms from planting to harvest. Essentially, the South African H-2A workers make up about 25% of the farm’s work during the harvest season.
“Our guys just can’t take up that much work if they’m not here,” says Tom-Rowland.
Tom-Rowland had reached out to the farm’s guest workers in South Africa, who were basically told that they could not travel. Even before the direct travel ban, the consulate in South Africa also operates, which processes visas for limited hours and staff, so there are already fears of weeks of long delays in getting visas processed.
Farmers had received some guidance that they could send their guest workers to another country, such as Namibia, which borders South Africa. The workers would then have to be quarantined for two weeks and would then possibly be able to travel to the USA. This means more delays for farmers who get labor to the country for spring planting or early southern harvest for the specially harvested herds.
“I do not think it is an ideal situation. We are working on all this, but we hope it does not reach that point,” said Tom-Rowland. “It’s another two weeks for us to wait for this important work to come here.”
Tom-Rowland said the situation could be difficult in southern states where soil preparation, planting and harvesting of winter wheat crops also begin much earlier.
“In total, not many people – 5,000 people – come here from South Africa, but the 5,000 cover a lot of acres for farmers,” says Tom-Rowland. “It’s really difficult when farmers make specific plans for different crops and they do not have the staff required for them.”
The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation also sent a letter to the state congressional delegation emphasizing the importance of South African guest workers. The group stated that about 800 guest workers from South Africa work on Mississippi’s farm business. The Mississippi Farm Bureau noted that labor was important for state crop production. The group reiterated its appreciation for the health problems and said: “We believe that such risks can be safely managed without placing wholesale trips that cause significant disruption to the US economy.”
Jack said the H-2A placement service that her farm use had told as many as 190 farms in Mississippi had gone through the placement service this year seeking H-2A workers from South Africa to work machinery.
“So there are a lot of farms out there that will struggle to get crops planted,” she said. “We are all in the same situation and desperately trying to find people so that the crops can be planted. I do not even want to think about what it will be like last year and we have a really small window to get things done.”
USA Rice also sent out a message to members on Thursday that the travel ban would have a significant impact on the Central South and other grain-producing states. The United States Rice also began receiving support from members of Congress to write to Secretary of State and acting heads of state, Homeland Security and the USDA to obtain an exemption from the travel ban for H-2A workers.
“We feel that these two-letter lettering will have a major and likely successful impact,” U.S. Rice staff wrote to members.
The American Farm Bureau Federation wrote a letter on Thursday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was just confirmed this week, and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security David Pekoske. AFBF President Zippy Duvall demanded that the two departments exempt H-2A workers from the travel ban.
“While it is very important to protect our nation from new strains of COVID-19, it is in our national interest to ensure the production of food, fuel and fiber,” Duvall’s letter said. Duvall said Homeland Security and the State Department should work together to allow workers to take appropriate health and safety measures to enter the country.
Last year, then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue used his office to reach out to the State Department to ensure that consulates would continue to allow H-2A workers into the United States when consulate offices around the world were closed. Last year, the State Department opened its visa application to H-2A workers, citing that these workers were essential to the economy and US food security. Tom Vilsack, Biden’s candidate for agricultural secretary, is still waiting for a confirmation hearing next week.
To make it easier to find guest workers, the USDA under Perdue also created a farmers’ portal to find seasonal H-2A workers. The portal was set up to help farmers manage paperwork and other federal departments. H-2A workers and employers must not only address the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security, but also the Ministry of Labor.
USDA spokesman Matt Herrick, in a statement to DTN, said, “USDA management has reached out to the Department of Labor, State and Homeland Security this week because agricultural workers and the H-2A program are essential to our businesses and producers. We hope there is a solution that protects us in the midst of this national emergency and also ensures that we have a stable workforce. We will continue to be engaged. “
Chris Clayton can be reached at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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