How to Hire the Best Temporary Workers for Your Farm

A Labor Department program called H2A changed my company for the better. I wish I had known about it from the start. I want to pass on the good news.

My journey toward finding solid workers whom I can trust has not been a straight line. Here in upstate New York, the farming labor market is sparse. That small pool grew even smaller because I couldn’t compete for the more professional workers who went with venture capitalist-owned farms that pay $30 an hour. Nor would I hire illegal immigrants, who often give employers fake social security cards.

For the most part, I hired locals, seeking a change of life, and recent college graduates wanting a temporary summer job. The students’ limited availability was a problem because the dahlia season stretches through summer into December, when we dig up all the tubers. In addition, one needs a specific set of skills to grow dahlias. I needed expert, conceptual, and artistically inclined cutters. Every year I found myself left with the time-consuming task of reteaching workers all over again.

There was another set of difficulties I didn’t expect. Knowing I was a start-up and from the city, everyone assumed I knew very little. They regularly questioned my directions because they all assumed they had more “gardening” experience than I. (Does anyone really think I would start a business and have made a substantial investment without having done my homework?) Trying to explain and rationalize why a home gardening idea didn’t translate to commercial farming didn’t work so I tried to incorporate employee advice as often as possible to not appear an unfeeling or bullheaded boss, but it usually turned out badly. These experiences were frustrating and sometimes costly, so I learned to trust my own instincts above all else. Still, some workers went so far as to act without my permission. One guy took my tractor when I was out of town, plowed acres of my back land for two days and broke shank, grille and mirrors and never even bothered to tell me. A female worker inexplicably chopped down trees on my property. Though I had be at the helm of other businesses in the past, this one just seemed to have more challenging people issues. I think some didn’t expect farm work to be so strenuous, perhaps others didn’t take the work seriously because they knew they were out the door soon, and a few in career change mode were searching and had a lot on their minds. Focus and cohesiveness were just not hallmarks of the team.

Fortunately, I knew I was not alone. A neighboring vegetable farmer was having the same type of issues. He said of his farm, “Where things grow and relationships die.” This surprised me because the labor pool for vegetable farms is usually bigger than that for flowers. It seems growing food is appealing as it is viewed as doing something needed and beneficial for society. Growing flowers is often seen as a beauty project and therefore, frivolous, reducing the labor pool even further.

Prepping dahlias after cutting

In 2017, I heard about the H2A temporary agricultural program, which allows employers who meet regulatory requirements to bring foreign workers to the United States for temporary or seasonal agricultural labor. I was hopeful that I could find workers through this program. The basic requirements for the employer:

  • Offer a job that is of a temporary or seasonal nature.
  • Demonstrate that there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available to do the temporary work.
  • Show that employing H-2A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.
  • Generally, submit a single valid temporary labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor with the H-2A petition.

[Above from https://www.uscis.gov/working-united-states/temporary-workers/h-2a-temporary-agricultural-workers]

You must first determine if any Americans will do the seasonal work because foreign workers cannot replace Americans who want to work. The starting place is to put ads in local newspapers and at the labor department. You must interview all applicants. No dice for me. I’ve had zero applicants two years in a row.

The H2A application process is enormously complicated, so I hired consultants to wade through the red tape for me. They weren’t cheap, but it was worth it. My only task was to write up minor requirements for my workers. I asked for four workers who had flower farming experience. They didn’t have a lot of experience because the maximum experience you can request is three months. When the workers, all from Jamaica, showed up, I realized I had a mixed bag. One was simply not equipped mentally or physically. I immediately sent him back. Of the three left, just one was fabulous.

Last year I understood the H2A program much better.  I requested and got the good worker back.  The other three who came were amazing (maybe the program representatives knew I would send them back otherwise).  They were all true professionals with flower farming experience.  They want to work.  They were puzzled when I explained that they were required to take one day off a week.  They come here to the U.S. to make more money than they would in Jamaica to support their families. They will all return next year and I hope to expand the team. True, when you add up the cost of the paperwork and airfare here along with hourly pay, they aren’t inexpensive workers, but they are worth every penny. Having real pros who care about their work is super important. They are an absolute pleasure to work with and we converse about ideas on how to approach different problems.

The government sets the price you pay foreign workers. I then discern my total costs, which include the workers’ airfare, consultant fees and any other cost I have. In addition to an hourly salary, I pay social security, workman’s comp, and disability for them. When you amortize all that in, their pay is roughly $16 an hour. The hourly fee itself is about $13 an hour for New York State.

The program requires inspections from the Labor board. People from the Labor board are the most helpful you can imagine. They call before they come and explain why people fail inspections to help you avoid those pitfalls. Among other things, they check the workers’ living conditions. We were not worried as we give our workers a really good house. I feel that treating workers with respect, a decent wage and benefits earns their loyalty and commitment to work hard.

In my experience that has turned out to be the case. In fact, if the Labor Department cuts the H2A program, I will be dead in the water.

After all, I just fixed that broken tractor.

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