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Farmers across the U.S. are struggling with a labor shortage. The foreign workers they've hired for planting and picking are still waiting for their visas. The H-2A program allows people into this country to do seasonal agricultural jobs, and the program is delayed for the third year in a row. From North Country Public Radio, Lauren Rosenthal reports.
LAUREN ROSENTHAL, BYLINE: It sounds like the setup to a bad joke - a professor and a doctor walk onto a farm.
KATHLEEN TERRENCE: I'm Kathleen Terrence. I'm a doctor - pediatrician.
ROSENTHAL: She's kneeling in an onion field outside Lisbon, N.Y. with a bunch of kids. They're all taking tips from Mark Sturges. But he's no farmer, either. He's a literary critic.
MARK STURGES: So I guess we have a total of 30,000 onions to plant today. Are you guys ready?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It's going to be fun.
ROSENTHAL: These are just some of the volunteers who stepped up to plant onions for Kent Family Growers. But farm owner Dan Kent says he's worried about the rest of his growing season. The workers he hired are a month late.
DAN KENT: I am assuming that our guys are still in southern Mexico where they live, waiting for word that they have an appointment at the U.S. Consulate somewhere on the border.
ROSENTHAL: Kent hired his three guys through the H-2A visa program for seasonal farm jobs. The program has fallen behind every year since 2014. The reasons vary from year to year, but the outcome is the same. Kristi Boswell is with the American Farm Bureau. She says farmers have reported losses of up to $300,000.
KRISTI BOSWELL: We have perishable commodities - blueberries, we're starting into pruning for our apples. Melons are also, you know, peaking up. And we don't have a good workforce.
ROSENTHAL: It seems to be getting worse. Congress has talked about stabilizing the farm workforce by making it easier for workers to become citizens, but immigration reform is pretty much stalled out. Farmers are growing more reliant on seasonal workers with H-2A visas. Assistant U.S. Labor Secretary Portia Wu says applications to sponsor temporary farmworkers shot up 80 percent over the last five years.
PORTIA WU: We added staff. We approved overtime. It was not nearly enough to meet the surge that we saw.
ROSENTHAL: The law says farmers have to try and hire locally. But Boswell with the American Farm Bureau says domestic labor is dried up.
BOSWELL: We have a workforce that's aging. We have American workers that are not coming out to the farms to do the work. And so we're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.
ROSENTHAL: That hard place is the H-2A program. Boswell says it's a bureaucratic nightmare to apply. And it's not cheap. Farmers have to provide housing, transportation, food for workers. Their pay is often higher than the state's minimum wage. In New York, it's an extra $2 an hour. But Megan Horn with the advocacy group Farmworker Justice says the U.S. economy has gotten stronger. If farmers wanted to attract local workers, Horn says they'd have to pay more.
MEGAN HORN: We're not seeing huge increases in wages or very significant increases in wages at all. They've barely kept up with inflation.
ROSENTHAL: Dan Kent says he's tried to hire locally in upstate New York, but it's never worked out. As for paying higher wages, Kent says his crew from Mexico will earn $11.74 an hour. When he factors in their food, housing and travel, it's more than what he takes for himself.
KENT: For the sake of keeping this whole project alive, I'm going to try this. But until I can figure out a way to make more than my workers, I'm not apt to pay them $15 or $18 or $25 an hour. It would make me come unhinged.
ROSENTHAL: Kent has reached out to several members of Congress for help. The House is weighing a bill that would streamline the H-2A visa program. But in the current political climate, it's not likely to take root anytime soon. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Rosenthal in northern New York.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story, as in a previous web version, describes an 80 percent increase in H-2A visa applications over the last five years. In fact, applications only increased by 40 percent in that time period.]
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