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Visas increase as farmers and ranchers look to hire more guest agricultural workers

 A farmworker runs through a field of planted crops with a box above his shoulder.
Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation
In Illinois, more than 2,300 workers were certified last year. In Missouri, that number stood just above 1,200, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The H-2A visa program, which provides guest workers in agriculture, continues to be more heavily used by American farmers, ranchers and corporations each year.

The trend will likely continue in the next few years, said Jackson Takach, chief economist at Farmer Mac, a lender for agricultural and rural infrastructure based in Washington, D.C.

“In the short run, I expect them to continue as long as we have that pressure on labor markets,” Takach said.

He recently compiled the data from the past 10 years in a Farmer Mac report.

In 2022, more than 378,000 guest workers were authorized through the H-2A program, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. A decade earlier, that figure stood at just 103,000.

While H-2A workers are most utilized in California and Florida, where the fruits and vegetables require more manual labor, they’re also important for agriculture in the Midwest and Great Plains.

In Illinois, more than 2,300 workers were certified last year. In Missouri, that number stood just above 1,200. A vast majority come from Mexico, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health.

Farmers in the St. Louis region say they utilize the federal program because they struggle to find local employees. In the Metro East, where a majority of the country's horseradish is produced, farmers like Jeff Heepke started to use the program.

“There's just not enough people anymore to fill that gap,” said Heepke, a fourth-generation horseradish farmer near Edwardsville. “It's definitely a necessary workforce that we need, and it was a decision of if we're going to grow horseradish or not because we can't find workers.”

While Heepke also plants corn and soybeans on his farm, he and his family can manage those crops by themselves. Of his 4,500 acres, only 200 are planted with horseradish. However, he estimates half his equipment and time are spent on the root. And that’s why he needs the extra help, like manual labor, to plant and prepare next year’s crop.

This past year, Heepke had six H-2A workers help with his horseradish, his second year using the program. Previously, his family employed local high schoolers and other local employees, but Heepke said he began to struggle to fill positions.

“We couldn't find anybody to come work for us, and they had all found different jobs,” he said. “The job market has changed, at least for the employees we were looking for.”

 A farmer leans on his red tractor in a field of grass.
Will Bauer
St. Louis Public Radio
Horseradish farmer Jeff Heepke of Edwardsville previously employed high school students and other people from the area. But two years ago, Heepke said he began to struggle to fill positions.

Proteus Inc., is a Des Moines-based nonprofit that advocates for agricultural workers in Iowa, Nebraska and Indiana. CEO Daniel Zinnel said it’s easy to overlook how much guest workers help in U.S. agriculture.

“They're working from sunrise to sunset in order to provide all of us with the food that we eat every single day,” he said.

The organization provides job training and educational services, as well as basic health care, to both H-2A workers and local farmworkers, Zinnel said. The workers Proteus helps often start out making wages lower than the poverty line. The nonprofit wants those workers to exit the program making well over $35,000 per year.

“We're seeing just a growing number of H-2A visa workers coming to work in agriculture in general,” he said. “We'd like to continue to provide access to care to as many of them as possible.”

While Takach, the economist at Farmer Mac, expects the number of guest workers to expand as the labor market remains tight, he said at some point that could change.

“I think there's probably a limit in the long run of how many H-2A authorizations the food system really needs in a labor force,” Takach said. “However, we probably won’t see that in the next one or two years. It probably would take more time to develop the technology.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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