U.S. farmers scramble for help as COVID-19 scuttles immigrant workforce


Mark Weinraub and Julie Ingwersen, Reuters 

July 2, 2020


CHICAGO (Reuters) - The novel coronavirus delayed the arrival of seasonal immigrants who normally help harvest U.S. wheat, leaving farmers to depend on high school students, school bus drivers, laid-off oilfield workers and others to run machines that bring in the crop.


As combines work their way north from the Southern Plains of Texas and Oklahoma, farmers and harvesting companies are having a hard time finding and keeping workers. Any delays in the harvest could send wheat prices higher and cause a scramble to secure supplies to make bread and pasta.


The United States is the world’s No. 3 exporter of wheat, a crop in high demand during the pandemic. A sustained labor shortage could impact the soy and corn harvests that start in September.


Harvesting companies and farmers interviewed by Reuters said their new U.S. employees have required more training and quit at higher rates than usual, as the combines head north and begin to bring in other major export crops.


While grain harvests are more automated than the labor-intensive fruit and vegetable industries, they are not immune to labor shortages.


Josh Beckley of Beckley Harvesting Inc, based in Atwood, Kansas, typically counts on migrants for about 30% of his workers. The most common visa for migrant agriculture workers is the H-2A, which allows workers to stay in the United States for months at a time to work on farms.


This year, Beckley had no foreign laborers on his crew. He has struggled to find replacement workers, with many Americans unwilling to sign up for months of traveling through the U.S. farm belt.


“They called back and said, ‘Hey man, I just don’t think I should leave home with all this stuff going on,’” he said.


Farmers, who have been loyal supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, have grown more reliant on immigrant labor in recent years. The Trump administration continues to issue agriculture visas while clamping down on tech workers, students and other groups...