The official, legal policy solution for farmers who need extra help has been in place in one form or another since World War II. The H2-A visa program asks farmers to apply to bring in foreign workers for the harvest season. Many farmers use the program, and some of the owners of the smaller farms I talked to use it exclusively. That knock on the door of Luis’s trailer at one in the morning? It was the arrival of an H2-A worker fresh off a flight from Jamaica. But the program was created in the 1950s, and it isn’t well suited to farm labor today—and for most farmers, it has become a bureaucratic nightmare.
The annual slog through red tape puts farms at risk. Every farmer I talked to about H2-A mentioned delays in getting workers—which imperils the harvest. In 2015, for instance, a computer glitch held up hundreds of workers from Mexico, partially ruining Washington state’s cherry crop that year. Yet, none of the Hudson Valley farmers I interviewed for this story who use H2-A would go on the record to criticize it. The farmers are scared they won’t get the workers they need if they do. Farmers told me that it seems like just about any pretext is used to prevent them from getting their labor supply legally. One farmer told me she’d critiqued the program in a blog post a few years back, and she was paranoid that’s why she didn’t get her workers that year. A vegetable producer told me: “One year I didn’t get an H2-A worker because I didn’t use the word drive, as in, ‘Must drive a tractor.’ I used operate on the application.” Apparently, the farmer’s wording was not precise enough. Add the recent deportations to the existing H2-A delays and application concerns, and you’ve got one nervous farming community. (When I asked the Department of Labor about these H2-A problems, a spokesman told me the Trump administration was still too new to have a policy position on the program or about the concerns farmers have voiced about the system.)
This year, the fear of not having enough undocumented labor or enough H2-A workers has farmers planting fewer crops across the Hudson Valley.