Farms encountering guest worker shortage amid new coronavirus restrictions

Posted at 12:53 PM, Apr 14, 2020

CALLANDS, Va. – Across more than 2,000 acres, Robert Mills lives his life’s work.

From cows to chickens, tobacco to wheat, it’s all part of Briar View Farms in southern Virginia.

“We're a pretty diverse operation,” Mills said.

It’s a nimble operation he runs with his family and fewer than 10 workers.

“Most of the workers that do come here are through the H-2A program, which is a guest visa program that's administered through the federal government,” Mills said. “And most of these workers are coming from Mexico.”

Yet, he’s having trouble getting those workers. Because of the coronavirus, the U.S. is not processing any new guest worker visa applications. However, Mills’ workers are not new: they’ve worked on his farm before, but still haven’t been allowed to enter the country.

“We don't know what the holdup is right now,” he said. “There's no red flags flying, showing that's why our workers are being delayed.”

While Mills uses a small number of guest workers, other farms in the country use many more to harvest their crops. The U.S. Department of Labor said that in March and April of last year, there were more than 77,000 H-2A visas issued.

“When you start talking about perishable items, it's very critical that we get that workforce here,” Mills said.

Mills hoped to find some help in the new $2 trillion federal stimulus package, which is also supposed to help farmers – but , apparently, not his farm.

“Because I work with H-2A workers, I didn't qualify,” he said. “And so that was very disappointing to me.”

On the farm, though, there are other issues, beyond just getting workers. Prices on a number of agriculture products remain low.

“We were already in a depressed market,” Mills said, “because of the tariff.”

The “tariff” refers to what many farmers are still reeling from: the recent U.S. trade war with China. The president addressed it during the coronavirus briefing on April 7.

“As you know, as of April 1, the China trade deal — $250-billion — they purchased $250 billion from us, if not more,” President Donald Trump said. “And of that, approximately $50 billion is expected to be with our farmers. So, it kicked in as of April 1, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Back at Briar View Farms, Robert Mills said he hopes farms like his can weather this latest storm and get some help.

“We're talking about food safety and food security,” he said. “We’re a resilient group of people and this too shall pass. But right now, we've got to make sure that our agricultural communities are looked after.”

In addition to their pay, Mills is required by law to provide transportation and certified housing for his guest workers. To help keep everyone safe, he’s now set up a second house as a potential quarantine zone, should any of the workers become sick with the coronavirus.