"Don't try to run it alone," Talbott says. "To do everything right and in sequence is difficult."
He works with an Arkansas-based company whose representatives in Mexico put together qualified crews, see them through consulate interviews and transport them to his farm. He suggests applying for a few more visas than needed to allow for attrition.
Kearns also works with representatives in Mexico and Jamaica.
"For Mexican workers there's a lot more legwork involved," she says.
Plan ahead, and start early
Start early to avoid coming up short when you need extra workers, both growers advise. Last year visa delays pushed back Talbott's first arrivals, scheduled for pruning work, more than a month--worrisome, but not critical.
"If we'd been bringing them in for harvest it would have been a big problem," he says. "We would've been halfway through the peach harvest if they'd been a month behind."
He uses a two-stage approach: bring in half his H-2A workers by Feb. 1 to prune, thin and harvest, then wait until harvest needs come into better focus to determine the number of the second batch arriving in mid-July.
That division provides more flexibility in case of weather losses or other unexpected reductions in harvestable fruit, Talbott says.
"You want to give yourself enough leeway to have them arrive in a timely fashion," Kearns says. "But you can't bring them in too early."
H-2A contracts guarantee work for at least three-fourths of the specified time.
"You wind up paying for sitting around time," she says.
Don’t cut corners
Bob Brammer, president of Crane & Crane Inc. in Brewster, Wash., boiled down two years of H-2A experience into three precepts at the horticultural meeting: Don't cut corners, communicate often and early, and document everything.
Cutting corners can backfire if problems occur. "Having made a good-faith effort at compliance puts you in a good place to start solving it," Brammer says.
Documenting everything, including what's covered in orientations, training, safety meetings and counseling sessions, provides backup should problems occur, he says.
But communicating expectationsboth before workers sign contracts and at orientations after arrivalhelps head off potential problems, he says. Continue that process through the contract and at an exit interview to get feedback and improve efforts on both sides.