(Oct. 12) If labor woes are giving growers lemons, H-2A is the semisweet lemonade some are attempting to stir together.

With comprehensive immigration reform stalled, federal enforcement of no-match regulation drawing closer and labor shortages increasing, fruit and vegetable growers are beginning to turn to the nation’s guest agricultural worker program to account for their future labor needs.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported certified workers under the program in fiscal year 2006 totaled 59,112, up about 11,000 workers from fiscal year 2005.

The increasing interest in the program comes despite what many growers consider huge barriers to it use. Those barriers include high costs associated with the program, administrative delays in the approval process and the requirement to furnish housing to guest workers.

The White House announced Aug. 10 it was tightening worksite enforcement of undocumented workers, while at the same time insisting it was open to listening to changes that could make the agricultural guest worker program work better for growers.

In late August and September, the National Council of Agricultural Employers submitted a list of administrative and regulatory changes the White House could advance to help streamline the H-2A program to make it more usable for growers.

Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers, said the administration has been very quiet about what possible streamlining of the H-2A program it will attempt.

“If they could show good faith for any of the administrative changes, it would make it helpful for users of the program now,” Hughes said Oct. 9. Hughes said the H-2A program is growing in Florida about a 25% annual rate, and growth is also occurring in Michigan, the Northwest and California.