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Across the globe, governments are imposing travel limits in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus. The unintended consequence is a squeeze on migrant labor that's a cornerstone of food production.

American produce growers preparing to harvest crops are warning of a devastating impact on fruits and vegetables after the U.S. Embassy in Mexico announced a halt to visa interviews for seasonal farmworkers. Slaughterhouses also potentially face labor shortages.

"There won't be anyone to harvest the crops," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents U.S. growers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers. "It will be devastating to growers and ultimately to the supply chain and consumers. They won't have the food."

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico posted a notice on its website announcing that it was indefinitely halting visa interviews needed to process applications to enter the U.S., including for seasonal farmworkers under the H-2A visa program.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture "is directly engaged with the State Department and working diligently to ensure minimal disruption in H2A visa applications during these uncertain times," the agency said in an emailed response. "This Administration is doing everything possible to maintain continuity of this critically important program."

Officials with the Arkansas Farm Bureau on Wednesday morning held a lengthy conference call with members of the state's congressional delegation and their staffs to discuss the problem, said Matt King, a Farm Bureau economist and director of public affairs.

Migrant workers are vital in planting and harvesting of all Arkansas crops throughout the growing year King said. Farmers who are trying to plant fruits and vegetables face the most immediate problems because of harvests in May and June, King said.

"Our migrant workers on visas are essential to farms across the state, but especially so right now with fruits and vegetables," King said.

Most arrive by late March, regardless of crop. About 2,000 H-2A jobs are certified each year in Arkansas, mostly on tomato harvests, according to federal statistics.

Farmers in the H-2A program have to make sure their workers already approved for visas arrive in the U.S. through airports in countries not under "Level 3" travel restrictions, or risk spending thousands of dollars on airline tickets for those workers forced to return to their home countries, King said.

Expectations for a labor crunch reveal how interconnected the world of global agriculture has become, and expose the strains of production and areas of vulnerability to the supply chain. In many key food-making nations, the industry relies heavily on migrant and immigrant workers to fill jobs that middle-class citizens shun -- the back-breaking work of tomato pickers, the dangerous conditions at slaughterhouses and what many would consider the unpalatable environment of large livestock-feed operations.

In Australia, growers say that country may face shortages of some fruits and vegetables because of travel curbs, with the nation traditionally using overseas workers for one-third of seasonal farming jobs. And in Canada, travel curbs are threatening meat processors that rely on temporary foreign workers to fill chronic labor shortages.

The timing for the disruptions in some ways couldn't be worse. In the Northern Hemisphere, farmers are gearing up for their peak spring and summer growing seasons. Ranchers also tend to sell more animals to slaughter at this time of year.

While large grain and oilseed operations in the U.S. don't rely as much on seasonal workers, many fruit and vegetable operators do. Leafy greens, berries and cucumbers are likely to be hit first by the loss of seasonal workers, Guenther said. Tree fruit such as peaches, plums, nectarines and citrus would be affected heading into May and June, he said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told farm representatives in a conference call Tuesday that the State Department will process visa applications from returning farmworkers who are eligible for interview waivers, said Dave Puglia, president of Western Growers Association, which represents 2,500 businesses in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The USDA didn't immediately respond to a request to confirm his account of the call.

The U.S. State Department didn't respond to requests for comment on the visa interview halt.

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest general farm organization, said the restrictions would still impede the harvest.

"Under the new restrictions, American farmers will not have access to all of the skilled immigrant labor needed at a critical time in the planting season," Duvall said. "This threatens our ability to put food on Americans' tables."

In Canada, the restrictions may hold up visas for people who had jobs lined up at the nation's protein plants from places such as Central America or the Philippines, said Chris White, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Meat Council. The workers are "critical" to the nation's meat production.

In Australia, the government on Monday imposed a two-week self-isolation period for anyone entering the country. That restricts the agriculture industry's access to a key source of seasonal labor.

Information for this article was contributed by Mike Dorning, Ed Ludlow and Ainslie Chandler of Bloomberg News and by Stephen Steed of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Business on 03/19/2020

Print Headline: U.S. halts Mexico farmworker visas

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