CSA NOTEBOOK: Harmony Valley Farm, Wisconsin

The worth of good work: An H2-A odyssey
Wisconsin vegetable growers Linda Halley and Richard de Wilde venture into new territory with the federal seasonal worker program. So far, so good.

By Linda Halley

Farm-at-a-Glance

Harmony Valley Farm
Viroqua, Wisconsin

Location: About 90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles south of La Crosse

Years farming: Since 1973

Total acres: 75 (approx. one acre per crop)

Crops: Over 60 berries and vegetables, from wild leeks and celery root to raspberries and pumpkins.

Season: Start harvesting in April, finish in early November. CSA deliveries start the first Saturday in May, and extend into December.

Regenerative practices:
Extensive cover cropping
Annual applications of compost, permanent hedgerows as habitats for insect predators
No-till vegetable production to reduce erosion and improve soil structure
Detailed record-keeping

Marketing: CSAs, farmers markets, wholesale distribution, restaurants, farm stand, local retail stories

April 19, 2004: Temporary workers, usually an invisible subset of laborers, have been making the news lately. In January, President Bush rolled out a sketchy plan to revamp the temporary visa program, leaving lots of questions swirling in the media and in the heads of farmers like us. Earlier, a bi-partisan legislative proposal called AgJobs was introduced with considerably less press attention. Both plans attempt to improve the laws surrounding seasonal workers, but neither will be enacted anytime soon. For this year, the only option for agricultural employers who need legal, seasonal help is to hire from the local workforce or participate in the H2-A program.

We manage our 75 acres of fresh market vegetables for a 450-member CSA and wholesale outlets with a five-person year-round crew. For the growing season we employ 15 additional people. The past few years, our crew has been pretty stable. Those who don't work for us in the winter find alternate employment fairly easily in small factories, on dairy farms or in creative self-employment, happily returning to Harmony Valley Farm when the weather warms up. For the few job openings we must fill each spring, we find plenty of competent folks who have been referred to us by our current employees. We make it known that we do not pay cash wages, we maintain a payroll and hire only people with legal working credentials. We give preference to people with experience, and who will consider working here for more than one season. This process has led gradually to a harvest and packing crew that is at least half Hispanic, with roots in Mexico. We have benefited from the stability of a returning, professional crew. Employee training time has been greatly reduced. The cost of producing some of the labor-intensive crops has gone down as the expertise of our employees has gone up.

Last autumn, Jose Manuel, one of our most capable and reliable employees, let us know he would be leaving before the end of the season to return to his family in Mexico. We encouraged him to return to work in the spring, but he avoided making a commitment. So, in January, when we were invited to visit a friend spending the winter in San Miguel de Allende, we tucked Jose Manuel’s address and phone number in our bags, remembering he lived not far from that town.

An eye-opening experience

Once in Mexico, finding Jose Manuel was as easy as making a phone call. He really did live in a rancho just outside town with his wife and three year-old daughter. He came to pick us up and drove us back to meet his family. We toured his little village, met his compadres, Juan and Anna, and enjoyed a wonderful lunch with his wife and daughter. It was an eye-opening adventure.
It became immediately obvious that working in the states was a way of life for the vast majority of men in the rancho. The funds they earned in “el norte” and sent back were responsible for the many newly-built and remodeled homes, including Jose Manuel’s, with its beautifully-tiled bathroom and patio-in-progress. Both Jose Manuel and Juan were working in construction for the winter. They explained that the pay was poor, just enough to cover living expenses, and job security was non-existent. They both hoped to work in the States again soon. Conversation, of course, moved toward working at Harmony Valley. Soon enough we gained a whole new understanding of Jose Manuel’s situation. He reluctantly revealed that his work documents were false and that crossing the border and getting back to Wisconsin would be risky and expensive – costing between $1000 and $2000. However, Jose Manuel knew other men from the rancho who worked on large farms and in large plants in the United States and who went back and forth to work each year on a seasonal visa. Could we make that happen for them? We agreed to try.

First steps

That’s how our H2-A odyssey began, and we’d like to share our experiences so far. First, this is a federal program with its federal red tape, complicated by each state adding its own unique set of labor standards. We read the rules on the Internet, looked at our timeline of three months until harvest season, and decided to contract a specialist—Head Honchos of Helotes, Texas—to help us navigate the maze quickly. For a flat fee this company would make sure we complied with the laws each step of the way, filing applications on time, paying fees and even helping our employees when they went to pick up their visas at the consulate in Monterrey, Mexico.

For our part, we had to arrange for housing and get it inspected by April 1. We also had to prove we provide workers’ compensation. We have yet to draft a work agreement specifying job duties, wages and hours that comply with our state standards, including offering the “adverse effect wage"—in Wisconsin that means $8.70 per hour. In addition to those wages, we must provide transportation to and from the worksite each day, and to and from Mexico pre-and post-season. All in all, the requirements seem reasonable for the employer, yet still provide adequate protection against abuse of seasonal workers.

It doesn’t take advanced math to see that hiring Jose Manuel on a H2-A visa will cost us more than we paid him last year as a regular, hourly employee with work documents. Nevertheless, we don’t hesitate to do this for Jose Manuel. First, we would not now hire him outside of the program, since we know he has false documents. Second, we know we are getting a good employee; someone we enjoy working with, and someone who is already very familiar with our systems. It’s hard to put a value on that. Would we be prepared to go to these lengths for an unknown worker, searched out by Head Honchos, without even the possibility of a pre-season interview? We’d have to think long and hard about that.

So far, so good, for the H2-A program. Our house passed inspection, the visa applicants in Mexico have their documents in order, and Head Honchos calls us regularly with progress reports. Watch this column for another report later this fall, when we have had a full season as H2-A employers under our belts.