Producers of labor-intensive crops face difficult choices due to the dwindling supply of farm workers, says Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA).

And most of the options are not very appealing.

“You might have to scale your operations back drastically. Or you might choose to give up labor-intensive crops. Or you might even have to give up agriculture altogether,” Wicker says.

“Some may very well think it best to jump off the merry-go-round, but many others are stuck on it and can't get off. There are simply not enough legal or illegal workers around that want our farm jobs.”

All this could lead more farmers to re-consider the one method of legally bringing foreign workers to their farms: The federal H-2A guest worker program.

Although it is difficult and expensive, it's proven to work.

“There are obviously challenges in using it, but the program legally allows the farmer a dependable supply of labor, while providing extensive protections to the worker,” says Wicker. “It can be difficult to find any other way to do this.”

He has special insight into the labor question. NCGA provides assistance to its 750 farmer members in participating in the program and in fact is the largest user of the program in this country.

“Our growers as well as our workers want to meet labor needs while complying with the law, and H-2A is the most reliable way to do it.”

But there are a multitude of problems associated with it. “Obtaining workers through this program is expensive, loaded with bureaucracy, and legal problems are frequent,” says Wicker. “But farmers without other options are finding a way to make it work.”

The program is administered by the federal government for the purpose of permitting citizens of other countries to temporarily come to work legally in the U.S.

Employers who wish to use the guest worker program must acquire a labor certification by both the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), and a visa petition approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). The employer must first attempt to recruit U.S. citizens who are willing and able to perform the work they need done. 

Once the employer is approved, he must make appointments with the U.S. Consulate for applicants to be interviewed so the H-2A visa may be issued that allows the worker to enter the country and work. The paperwork process takes approximately 60 days.