American Farmers Are Panicking Because Coronavirus Is Holding Up Worker Visas

Farmers who rely on thousands of foreign workers are racing against time as the growing season begins.

Eleven percent of crop workers on U.S. farms are seasonal foreign workers on H-2A visas. Nearly 90 percent come from Mexico, and the rest come from around the world, many from Jamaica and South Africa. But travel restrictions and offices closed due to the pandemic have delayed visa processing for weeks, and farmers are starting to panic.

Casey Darrow, a Vermont fruit grower, usually hires 20-30 workers from Jamaica every year for the harvest, including his "right-hand man" Dalbert Harvey, who's been coming for the past 25 years. But he still doesn't know when Harvey or the others will be able to come. They generally travel north by bus, and for some, it's the only work they have all year.

In Georgia, where farmers count on tens of thousands of seasonal workers every spring, John Schuman worries how his acres of sweet onions will get hand-planted. "We don't have a contingency plan, no Plan B," he said. And even if the visas eventually come through, he worries what will happen if a worker gets COVID-19, since they live in labor houses that are specifically built like dorms.

As time-sensitive work goes undone, some farmers fear the worst. “It could have a devastating impact on the farm,” says Laurie Bombard, who heads her family farm in Vermont and was expecting 20 Jamaican workers to arrive in mid-March. She likened this unprecedented time to the year when a hail storm destroyed her crops and her farm received a loan from the Farm Service Agency. “It was 10 years before we got back out of that debt,” she said.