Greenhouse King George Coutny

Tomato vines at Village Farms in King George County can grow well over 20 feet. Greenhouse workers prune excess foliage to expose the vines to optimum light.

When I was growing up, a complaint was heard from old men: “Nobody wants to work anymore.”

Perspective is everything. You see, in their generation (some called such men “old school”), they had come through tough times. Not working was not an option. Forced by circumstances and family living requirements, they had no choice. There was no one else to do the work, so they had to. It was not easy, and many looked for a better way to make a living, migrating to cities and a regular paycheck instead of farming’s 7-days-a-week demands.

As a percentage of the U.S. population, farmers have been in steady decline across the last 100 years, starting from a high of 30 percent in 1920 to less than 2 percent today. Most of this change can be explained, not by people’s willingness to work, but by changes in their rate of adoption of farm equipment and that equipment’s capacity. Imagine several teams of horses being replaced by one tractor. Today, when a farmer wants to reduce labor costs, they acquire or build more equipment.

In Culpeper County, innovative designers have replaced the work of three people with one operator using a one-of-a-kind “double barrel baler”—the Mount Pony Special—to put up three times the amount of hay. It made headlines in Progressive Forage magazine a few years back, here:

Last week, I poked fun at long-winded specialists and here I take four paragraphs to get to the point, which is a short discussion of H2A workers—or foreigners temporarily admitted into our country for agricultural work.

These folks do want to work. The proof is in their willingness to travel far from home, many from south of the border. But Europeans are coming here, too. I once wrote a letter to support the engagement of a foreign winemaker by a local vineyard under the federal labor rules.

The next generation of farmers is with us now. They don’t use much land, but generate hundreds of thousands more dollars in per-acre revenue than our larger farms and spend heavily on labor, often more than 50 percent of their total costs.

The “indoor” farmers—greenhouse growers—employ year-round workers; these are not H2A workers, but long-term ones. The H2A program is for short-term workers, often employed for less than a few years; many of them go home during the off-season and return to the same job at the same farm the next year.

Thanks to recent federal efforts to protect American access to H2A workers, our local farmers using these workers can bring them back as they did in previous years, but now there is a catch.

The airlines are not flying to all of the countries where H2A workers live. Millions of dollars of ready-to-harvest crops need tending, need to be readied for harvest, need to be replanted for the next cycle, and are at risk if these temporary workers fail to reach the United States in time.

But there is more. Let us not underestimate our farmers. They deal with the impossible, they deal with shortages, they deal with nature, and they deal with finding better solutions. I vote for this problem-solving, can-do trait as the reason the H2A labor problem will be solved.

Motivation is a powerful force, and it is at work in agriculture. For instance: Rain is coming, hurry up and finish before the crop is lost.

Rain is coming, if you will, in terms of the H2A worker shortage. A solution must be found, and I think it will be.

Carl C. Stafford is the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s senior agent in Culpeper County.

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