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Farm group warns of ‘bare shelves’ without expedited work visas

Group calls for processing of agricultural visas on an emergency basis.

Empty shelves of fruit are seen inside a grocery store in the U.K. due to the coronavirus pandemic. Agriculture Workforce Coalition is warning of bare shelves in U.S. grocery stores if the State Department doesn't expedite its review of visa applications for foreign agricultural workers.
Empty shelves of fruit are seen inside a grocery store in the U.K. due to the coronavirus pandemic. Agriculture Workforce Coalition is warning of bare shelves in U.S. grocery stores if the State Department doesn't expedite its review of visa applications for foreign agricultural workers. (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Agricultural employers warned of “bare shelves in grocery stores” in a letter to the State Department if it does not find a way to expedite its review of visa applications for foreign agricultural workers as U.S. farmers prepare for spring planting.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition said it welcomed the State Department’s decision to review some applications for H-2A agricultural visas after saying on Monday that it was suspending action on all visa applications at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and U.S. consulates throughout Mexico.

However, in a Tuesday email, the embassy notified H-2A and H-2B visa applicants that the consulate in Monterrey will give priority to processing people who have held H-2A or H-2B visas in the past 12 months, are seeking to renew those visas and qualify for a waiver from the requirement of an in-person interview.

But the coalition said in its letter Tuesday that only a portion of visa seekers will qualify for priority. The employers argue the decision comes as farmers need workers and will delay the arrival of labor on farms. Under the program, workers sign contracts for seasonal work for U.S. growers and enter under H-2A visas sponsored by the growers.

H-2B visas are for temporary workers who usually fill jobs such as housekeepers, food processors, amusement park workers, waiters and cooks.   

“The failure to take necessary action to protect our food supply will result in bare shelves in grocery store produce aisles, not from panic buying, but as the result of the federal government directly causing a shortage of critical labor,” the coalition wrote. “We urge you and the President to not let that happen.”

[Senate clears coronavirus aid package, with more to come]

The group noted the Department of Homeland Security has designated agriculture as a U.S. critical infrastructure sector. The employers said the designation should mean the industry’s need for foreign labor is treated as an essential function that merits processing of agricultural visas on an emergency basis.

In a Wednesday call about COVID-19 policies’ effects on agriculture, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said access to farm labor is a top priority for his members. About 90 percent of H-2A workers come from Mexico. In 2019, farmers and others in agriculture hired nearly 250,000 H-2A workers.

“This is one problem we’ve got to fix or four to six months down the road everyone will feel the effects of what could  happen if we don’t get the workers here to get” planting done, Duvall said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is a member of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition.    

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