90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles
south of La Crosse
Total acres: 75
(approx. one acre per crop)
Over 60 berries and vegetables, from wild leeks
and celery root to raspberries and pumpkins.
harvesting in April, finish in early November.
CSA deliveries start the first Saturday in May,
and extend into December.
• Extensive cover cropping
• Annual applications of
compost, permanent hedgerows as habitats for insect
• No-till vegetable production
to reduce erosion and improve soil structure
• Detailed record-keeping
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.
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,
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
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.