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Government shutdown threatens nation’s winter crops

PHOENIX — The Western Growers Association says the winter vegetable harvest is in jeopardy because migrant workers visa applications were stalled during the shutdown.

Ninety percent of the country’s vegetables are grown in the desert regions of Arizona and California in winter time. It usually takes at least eight weeks to process the applications of H-2A workers and the shutdown delayed that.

If farmers can’t get the labor they need, crops, including cabbage and lettuce, will be rotting in the fields.

“The H-2A program has never been efficient, or responsive to the needs of employers or workers even in the best of times,” Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif said in a press release. “Inaction by Congress on immigration reform has forced many farmers to turn to the H-2A program in desperation, but if these applications are not processed in an expedited manner, the Yuma and Imperial winter vegetable harvest, which relies on thousands of H- 2A workers, will suffer from lack of workers and consumers will face a shortage of domestic fresh produce. Prices will surely rise as supplies diminish.”

Thirty to fifty percent of agricultural workers in Yuma County (Arizona) and Imperial County (California) are H-2A guest workers during the winter season.

John Boelts, a grower in Yuma, doesn’t hire H-2A workers but he certainly understands the desperation among fellow growers who can’t find the labor they need to pick the winter vegetables.

“This has been a problem for 15 to 20 years,” he said. “I hear about the American Dream and, to me, that means trying to do better for your family and provide opportunity for your children. These migrant workers are generally hard-working, ethical people who are willing to work long days under adverse weather conditions in the fields to get the job done. That’s high skill in my book. A skill not that common among many Americans is to work as hard as agriculture demands.”

Boelts said some members of Congress need to get their heads out of the sand and quit playing politics with the immigration reform issue and realize that industries are going to disappear.

“By choosing not to address the issue and not making reforms these food items will start being produced more and more in other countries including Mexico.”

Boelts added the agricultural industry has been “self-compensating” by growing less and less acreage especially in leafy greens. This produces a huge economic loss if calculated over the years because the leafy greens are a high-value crop.