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Worker shortage frustrates farmers

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
October 2, 2013

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While our elected representatives have failed to pass a simple budget that keeps the government running, others are looking towards the big issues that also still haven’t been tackled. One of them is immigration. It may seem like another time when the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill  – in reality it was just a little more than three months ago.

There’s plenty of mechanical equipment at Chad Selman’s pecan farm. You’ve got pecan sorters, pecan sprayers, and the usual tractors.

But the farm about 20 miles north of Tulsa is missing one key piece – workers.

“I’ve put ads out in papers and I don’t have hardly anybody apply. If you’re telling me they’re taking American jobs, they’re not because there’s no one here wanting to work.”

Chad Selman’s story is common in agricultural circles. American workers often don’t want to work in the heat, cold, wind and unpredictable conditions found in the fields. And Chad says they don’t want to work only as seasonal help, but that’s all he can offer. So instead, he turns to the H-2A visa program, pulling workers from Mexico and other countries for temporary work on farms.

“For the farmer to do the paperwork himself, it changes every year. I pay someone to do the paperwork. That’s their sole job, lady I use it out of Kentucky.”

It’s not an easy process for anyone. Chad shadowed his father as he put together the application for four years, but then took over the farm, and the paperwork that comes with it, this year. One worker arrived in August, with 6 more due in November for the harvest. But some find all the hoops tiring.

“We engaged an out of country solicitor to do the work for us, getting to the Department of Labor in Chicago.”

Susan Bergen runs Peach Crest Farm in Stratford. She grows organic fruits and vegetables on 330 acres in south-central Oklahoma. She was a part of the H-2A program for 5 years, just like Chad, but she brought in 20 workers many years. Key word: was. She had enough after last year, when she says the feds audited her farm. So she got out of the program, and hasn’t found Americans to replace foreigners.

“I have a third of the amount of product that I had last year….it makes me not profitable. You either shut down or hope that our government will change.”

“One way is to point out if we don’t get this fixed, that will impact jobs in rural America, which will impact import/export opportunities.”

That’s US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. As a President Obama appointee, he’s been pushing for the immigration overhaul, in the hopes it helps keep American dollars in the country, instead of pushing them across borders to buy food from other countries.

“I think it’s important to point out, this bill requires, that is a fundamental principle that they get right of first refusal. You have to look elsewhere.”

Chad Selman said if Americans did agree to work for him, they’d often be gone within a couple weeks of first arriving. Susan Bergen said she went everywhere to try to find workers – advertising in papers from New Mexico to Arkansas, plus offering free housing. But no one would ever bite. In the meantime, she’s pushing for Oklahoma to allow inmates to work on the farm. Similar programs are already in place in Georgia, Colorado, Arizona, among others. If that doesn’t go through, Chad has an idea – cut down on paperwork.

“What we really need is something where I can make one application every so many years. We need something that’s going to be out of 5 or 10 years.”

Because with the way things are now, Chad says there’s actually incentive to use illegal immigrants as workers instead of going through the complicated H2A process.

“I know that people do use illegal immigrants, but I don’t condone it. I would say if you wanted to find illegal immigrants, it would be easy.”

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