Southern Ohio farmer Scott Witten had only a handful of applicants when he placed ads seeking farm workers in his local newspaper and on a county forum. 

“There’s been about five people who have filled out the application in the 10 years I’ve been doing this,” said Witten, who grows fruits and vegetables in Washington County.

And it’s been getting worse for Witten.

Since the coronavirus swept Ohio in the spring and summer of 2020, the number of applicants is “zero,” he said.

To make up the shortfall, the farmer taps the H-2A visa program, which provides a pool of foreign laborers that Ohio farmers are increasingly using as domestic workers leave the labor force. H-2A brings farm workers to the United States on a seasonal basis.

Migrant visas jump in Ohio

Ohio farmers brought 3,733 H-2A visa holders to the Buckeye State in 2021. Nearly all of them came from Mexico and Central America. That figure makes up roughly half of the state’s reported agricultural workforce (although the number of undocumented immigrants working on Ohio farms is impossible to pin down, experts say) and is on pace to rise substantially this year. Ohio employers brought 2,272 H-2A visa works here in just the first half of the year.

The increase would outpace the program’s usual 10% annual growth, said Martin Hansen, outreach and marketing coordinator for El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has a program that assists workers and employers with the process.

Hansen had a booth at this year’s Farm Science Review in London to explain the program. Salvadoran Workers who participate make around $13 per hour in the United States, he said, vastly higher than El Salvador’s minimum wage of $280 per month.

Politicians on all sides of the political spectrum have long accused employers of exploiting immigrant workers, who demand less money and fewer benefits, in order to lower costs. But farmers and agriculture experts say growers turn to overseas workers out of desperation.

“We had an opportunity to do an eight-county tour across the state about two weeks ago,” said Sam Custer, interim assistant director for Ohio State University’s extension office. “Each visit we made, labor was the number one concern.”

Large farms have 50 to 100 full-time and seasonal employees, but even small family farms need one or two, he said. (H-2A workers generally tend to fields and pick fruits and vegetables.)

“Agriculture has always had labor supply shortages,” said Margaret Jodlowski, an agriculture labor economist in Ohio State’s department of agricultural, environmental and development economics. “This has been true for the last 40 years.”

And that was before workers left the labor force in unprecedented numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ohio farmers have raised wages and are offering more benefits like health insurance, but still can’t compete with big box retailers who advertise starting wages of up to $16 per hour, Jodlowski said.

Field work is intense, farmers acknowledge, requiring long days with fixed hours and is only available on a seasonal basis. As workers increasingly demand flexible schedules and the right to work from home, the agriculture industry has a hard time keeping up.

“The value of on-the-job flexibility is so high, workers are moving out of agriculture at an even higher rate,” Jodlowski said.

Witten’s farm is nestled amidst the gently rolling hills and seemingly endless corn fields of southeast Ohio near Lowell, a village hugging the banks of the Ohio River.

Witten grows fruits and vegetables such as strawberries and tomatoes which he sells at farmers’ markets and to wholesalers. In recent years the farmer sold enough to expand and now requires as many as 60 seasonal workers. 

The visa program “allows us to bring in workers who are looking to do a job that we just can’t find local employees to do,” Witten said.

The farmer said he usually brings in the same group of workers from Mexico and El Salvador who work well together and require little training.

The program’s lengthy hurdles are its downside. Applicants must prove they are unable to find domestic workers and can be turned down if they don’t adequately log their attempts to find local labor. Failure to follow disclosure rules could mean thousands of dollars in fines.

The process can take months, excluding farmers who need immediate help, Jodlowski said.

“Part of the program is ensuring that you’re not taking a job that an American worker would do,” she said. “That adds time and complication to the program. There are waiting periods, approval periods, there is a lot of cost involved.”

And H2-A visa workers can only work seasonally, meaning they can’t work with animals that need year-round care.

“It really is an ineffective program for the livestock sector,” Jodlowski said. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the visa program, declined to make anyone available for an on-the-record interview.

The fact that so many farmers use the program despite the headaches speaks to the need for farm workers, Jodlowski said.

“People are willing to bear those costs because there really isn’t anyone else,” she said.

Of course, the lack of domestic workers could have another long-term consequence: a greater reliance on machines.

Automated farm equipment is becoming more common and hiring trouble “only increases the adoption of technology,” Jodlowski said.

pcooley@dispatch.com

@PatrickACooley

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