H-2A-OK 👀 ?
foreign farm workers in the usa
Surprisingly, lots of workers from South Africa come to work on farms in the US
There are agencies that connect farmers and farm workers from overseas.
H-2A application is hard! HARD!
Seems like there might be a couple of small business opportunities here
This is the order of operations.
Farmers need seasonal labour
They can’t get this labour in America
Enter the H-2A visa program.
Workers from other countries apply for the visa, they get approved, come to the USA, help out with the season, and then head back home.
In FY2021, 93% of H-2A visa were issued to citizens of Mexico. That sounds about right. I assumed that the next country with the most H-2A visas would be a Central or South American country.
It’s not - it’s South Africa.
(chart from The Wilson Center article on H-2A Growth and Reform)
Here’s an article from Illinois Farmer Today that explains that
Many farmers … prefer to hire South Africans because they are more familiar with tractors, combines and other highly mechanized farm equipment
“A lot of times they have at least some experience handling these machines,” Cracchiolo said.
In addition, it’s apparently hard to hire American workers for these same roles.
It did get me thinking - how do these folks find jobs in America?
There are agencies that take care of this for you (e.g. USA Farm Labor, CV Placements, Agri Placements International)
They solve two main problems:
Connecting farmers with relevant farm workers
Dealing with paperwork and immigration
If you’re a worker looking for a job, then you call them and they match you with one of the clients on their roster.
If you’re a farmer looking for a seasonal worker - you get in touch with them, and they connect you with workers who have the skill set you’re looking for.
Seems straightforward? Nothing ever is when you involve immigration and the US government.
There’s the immigration and legal burden on employers and employees which starts before you’ve even hired anyone.
Let’s say I’m Farmer Sanju sowing oats in North Carolina.
First I need to figure out who I need to hire. I’ve got to try and hire local first, which means posting on the Department of Labor Seasonal Job Board. I don’t find anyone.
Then I need to prove to the Department of Labor that I need workers from overseas because I cannot find workers to do the same job locally.
I work with a lawyer to say, “Hey look I posted on your job board and found no one! Let me hire someone from outside the country. Please.”
Hopefully by now I’ve worked with people from one of those placement agencies to get a list of people from Mexico or South Africa or Jamaica that fit the job description.
After that I tell USCIS (the US Customs and Immigration Service) who exactly I want to bring in. USCIS processes my application and hopefully - hopefully! - approves it.
Then whomever I hire needs to go get a visa from their local embassy. The embassy maybe approves them for less than a year - this is a seasonal job after all. Whomever I hire can only renew this visa for a maximum of 3 years.
This is an insane process. And no one has started working yet.
Then there’s all the stuff I need to do once the folks I hire get here. A fuller list here, but it includes:
Providing insurance for all the workers
Free housing for anyone who can’t get back to their home the same day
Free meals or access to cooking facilities
None of that is bad! It sounds great for the workers! My point is hiring H-2A workers seems really hard.
And maybe there are some opportunities here for businesses to make life easier for farmers and those applying to work with them.
Lead Gen for H-2A job placement agencies
The agencies are operating a two-sided marketplace. They need a list of workers. They might need a list of farmers or folks hiring seasonal labor.
We could build a site that helps workers and farmers connect to these agencies.
There might also be an opportunity for lead gen for law firms that deal with H-2A immigration applications.
The US department of labor operates a job board. It’s not super user friendly, and the primary purpose seems to be for seasonal employers to prove that they can’t find someone local for their job.
In that case, a better job board is helpful here. It could help farmers find labor faster. But providing a better job board probably helps workers from overseas connect directly with farmers rather than dealing with a more opaque middle-man process.
Here’s a vlog by a South African H-2A worker on the daily work he does on a farm in North Dakota.
A video overview of the H-2A process by the Arkansas Farm Bureau
South African Farm Publication, Food For Mzansi, on South Africans working on American Farms
A New York Times piece on Black Farmworkers from Mississipi losing jobs to better paid foreign workers.
If you have any thoughts about this post, email firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message on twitter @sanjuashok.