The devil is in the details - The Packer

The devil is in the details

03/01/2008 02:00:00 AM

Do your homework before applying for H-2A temporary workers

By Renee Stern
Contributing Editor

Growers considering temporary foreign workers under the H-2A visa program should start preparing early and seek expert advice, say those familiar with the process.

Tighter supplies of seasonal labor have pushed more growers into the H-2A guest worker program to guarantee enough workers for harvest, pruning and other tasks.

"We feel like we have no alternative," says Bruce Talbott, orchard manager at Talbott Farms Inc. in Palisade, Colo.

In 2006, Talbott Farms' advertising for seasonal workers brought in three responses--none of whom showed up for their first day at the company's vineyards and apple, peach and pear orchards. Last year, the call for local workers drew a complete blank.

"Every major fruit grower in the area is in (the H-2A program) now," Talbott says.

Starting out can seem daunting. "It's simple in description, but devilish in details," says Brent Milne, assistant orchard manager at McDougall & Sons Inc. in Wenatchee, Wash. Milne took part in an "H-2A Survival Guide" seminar at the recent Washington State Horticultural Association's annual meeting.

Growers must provide worker housing and transportation. That's simpler in some areas than others and may require renting vans, hiring drivers and building dormitories.

McDougall & Sons plans to build two 12-bed bunkhouses this year and has a 90-bed complex on the drawing board. Project manager Mike Brown outlined housing options at the horticultural seminar, including off-site rentals and joint projects with nearby growers.

The Frederick County Fruit Growers Association Inc. in Winchester, Va., manages a housing area for member growers who bring in about 400 workers each year, mainly from Jamaica and other Caribbean nations.

Their reliance on foreign workers goes back decades as local labor supplies have dwindled. "Without it, I don't know what we would have done," says Diane Kearns, treasurer of Fruit Hill Orchard in Winchester. "We'd have to hang it up."

Growers must provide food or cooking facilities for their H-2A workers, but fire codes prohibit cooking in individual rooms at the labor camp. Instead, she says, the association hires cooks and offers communal meals.

Strength in numbers
Banding together also lessened risk in previous years when growers faced lawsuits over bringing in H-2A workers, Kearns says.

She and Talbott recommend growers consult with others who've gone through the process. And an experienced agent to represent you in the target country is vital.

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