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How a Computer Glitch Might Make Your Peaches Pricier This Summer

The lack of farm labor in the US means when the Visa system goes down, so do the farms.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Jun 18 2015, 12:00pm

Image: Alex Proimos/Flickr

Your cherries, cucumbers, and tomatoes might be more expensive this summer thanks to a computer glitch that's prevented hundreds of seasonal workers from getting the visas needed to come work at US farms.

"It's going to be a crisis," said Ann Margaret Pointer, a lawyer based in Atlanta who helps farmers navigate the visa application process for seasonal farmhands.

Farms across the country rely on seasonal foreign workers to help with tending and harvesting crops during the summer months. In the past few decades, finding US laborers that are both willing and able to pitch in on the farm during the growing season has become increasingly difficult. This means farmers from Vermont to Alabama rely heavily on foreign hands to grow the country's food, and all of those laborers need to get visas to legally enter and work in the country.

But last week, a hardware failure with the US Department of State's biometric systems meant that the visa approval process had to be halted across the board. After the Enhanced Border Security Act of 2002, all workers entering the United States (with a few exceptions) have to provide a fingerprint scan from all ten fingers, as well as have a digital photo taken and filed into the system.

On June 9, the system that collects all the fingerprints and photos and sends them to a massive database started to malfunction. It's not clear exactly what's wrong, but Niles Cole, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, told me it's still not working.

"Public and private sectors experts are working around the clock to correct the problem, but we do not expect the system will be online before next week," Cole told me via email. Without the ability to collect the biometric data, the bureau can't issue work visas. "We cannot bypass the legal requirements necessary to screen visa applicants before we issue visas for travel," he said.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs has said there's no evidence the system failure is the result of a hack, but the agency isn't saying what did cause it, either. In the meantime, at least 1,000 seasonal workers are stuck at the border and farms across the country are short-handed at one of the most critical times in the season.

All of the applications from farmers for seasonal workers are posted online and a quick scan of the database shows hundreds of work orders that are stuck in limbo since the system went down. Some farms only need a handful laborers to help with the workload, but others need dozens of workers and, for certain crops, a week or two delay in getting help could be devastating.

"The farmers need them badly," Pointer told me over the phone. "If the work isn't done, the crops can be lost."

Pointer recalled one colleague's client in South Dakota who is "desperate for 30 workers to pick his cucumbers." Cucumbers have to be within a certain size and weight for market sale: if they grow too big, they become bitter. But they grow so quickly that if they're not harvested at the right time they can grow too big in just one night, according to the Farmer's Almanac, which recommends checking the plant daily once the fruit starts to grow. If cucumbers grow too big, not only is that fruit lost, but also it prevents the plant from starting to grow a new cucumber until the old, fat one is picked. Once a backlog starts, it can be impossible to catch up without the needed hands, Pointer said. And when farms lose crops, there's always a risk that prices could rise.

The Virginia Agricultural Growers Association is a collective of small farms across southern Virginia. One of the association's biggest tasks is coordinating the visa applications for the farmhands needed at their 231 members' farms. This year, the group had work orders for 556 farmhands, none of whom have been able to cross the border due to the system glitch.

"It's very detrimental to our crops," Eloise Wilder, executive secretary at the VAGA, told me over the phone.

Wilder said their workers have been waiting at the border, staying in hotels while they wait to see if the system will get fixed soon. She said she's not sure what to tell the workers to do, and the workers have reported the hotels along the borders have increased the nightly rate as hundreds of immigrants are stuck waiting in limbo.

The Labor Department requires farms and groups like the VAGA to post all job listings in the US before seeking foreign help. Every year, the VAGA's call for workers is shared throughout Virginia and the surrounding states, as well as Puerto Rico, but they rarely attract any applicants, Wilder told me.

"This association was formed in 1980 because the growers were unable to find adequate legal workers," Wilder said. "And it's only gotten worse."

Wilder said if the system gets fixed in the next few days, the effects won't be disastrous, but in farming a few weeks without enough workers can make or break a season. Talk about bad timing for the pipes to break.