CSA NOTEBOOK: Harmony Valley Farm, Wisconsin

UPDATE: A legal immigrant odyssey
In the spring, Linda Halley wrote about their decision to go legal with their Mexican help. Now, in the thick of the season, she sends an update.

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

For more information

Read more about immigrant labor abuses in Eric Schlosser’s book, Reefer Madness; Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market.

 

August 3, 2004: Earlier in the spring I wrote an article about our first experience hiring workers with temporary visas, the H2A program (The worth of good work: An H2-A odyssey). Now, well into the season, it seems to be working well for all concerned. I’d like to share our experiences.

It all started with our visit to Mexico this winter. We embarked on an endeavor to secure temporary worker status for a former employee. After visiting Jose Manuel at his home near the central Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, we decided to begin the long process of red tape and legal hoop jumping to bring Jose Manuel back to work for the season on an H2A visa. For three months, a company in Texas helped us fill out papers, sign documents, and wait patiently for the many federal and state agencies to approve our request.

Early on in the process we realized that all the forms could be filled out for several people as easily as for one person, and that the company in Texas would charge us the same amount. We invited three others, relatives of employees, to make the journey with Jose Manuel.

After faxes, a flurry of affidavits and signatures, and lots of waiting, in May, we got the word; visas would be issued after Jose Manuel and the others completed an in-person interview at the American Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico. Appointments were scheduled, and the four of them met in Monterrey, Mexican Passports and meager traveling supplies in hand. Mexico is famous for its government holidays and May has its share. Cinco de Mayo and then Mothers’ Day on May 10, both delayed the appointments. When they finally got an interview, it mainly dealt with questions about their previous terrorist activities and any other illegal acts they may have committed. They all felt fortunate that their names were not the same or similar to any found on the FBI computers’ lists of dangerous persons.

The very next day their visas were issued, passports stamped and bus tickets purchased. It was quite a grueling ride from Monterrey to Laredo, to Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis, Chicago, Milwaukee and, finally La Crosse. Arriving a little bleary-eyed on Friday afternoon, they had until Monday to settle in to the house, buy badly needed essentials, and get ready for work.

It was very nice for us to have a former employee, skilled and trained, slip back into place on the crew. The new guys, being brothers or uncles of existing employees, were also quick to fit in socially and are proving to be reliable, dependable and skillful.

In October, when our workforce shrinks, the four of them will return to Mexico. Most likely they will be able to find temporary employment in Mexico for the winter and will be able to spend 6 months with their families. All are young men, three with kids back home.

Unfortunately, the security of a job for next year is a little tenuous. Each year the employer must go through the whole process anew. Everything must be reapproved, signed, and paid again, of course. I am glad we have built in some job security for our federal employees in the DOL and INS. Looks like there will be a stream of papers to push every year. We don’t expect to run into any unforeseen hurdles and these guys will probably return in the spring of 2005.

Funny, our foray into temporary visa applications took place with very little word about the president’s newly proposed immigrant worker program that would allow work visa holders to stay for three years without returning. The plan doesn’t seem to be well thought out, nor very warmly embraced. It certainly isn’t designed for most of the agricultural workers who now come under the H2A program, and whose jobs are seasonal in nature. Would they be unemployed in winter months? What happens after three years? Would employers have to agree to hire them for the whole time, like in the current program? Only questions, no answers, and pretty much, no more discussion. Maybe just a campaign ploy to win votes, but I think it backfired and was shelved.

There are many misconceptions out there about Hispanic workers. Firstly, they are assumed to be here illegally. We can attest to the fact that there are many here legally, as well. It is also argued that they are taking jobs from citizens. In our experience, that argument rings hollow. They seem to end up with the jobs that are unpleasant, physically demanding and that pay a lower than average wage. In western Wisconsin they work in the slaughter plants, dairy farms, apple orchards, and in our case, produce farms. Not too many farmers set out to hire Hispanic workers, but when good help is hard to find and an Hispanic applicant shows up they are given a try. The increase in Hispanic employees is more an indication that they stick with the job and do it well, than that farmers enjoy the challenge of a language barrier.

There are also rumors about how immigrant labor is abused. Yes, it certainly is true in some cases. However, immigrants on the H2A visas at least have some protections. They have serviceable housing, which can consist of dormitory style barracks, but in our case we provide a decent home in Viroqua. They also are protected from unfair dismissals, are guaranteed at least 30 hours of work per week, and are required to be paid a very fair wage. Immigrants who are here illegally really are at the mercy of opportunistic employers. Illegal immigrants in dense agricultural areas are often reduced to living crowded into substandard housing and waiting at a designated spot for employers to drive by at dawn and load them up for day labor. Such jobs pay piece rate, which, even if you are a fast picker, can be a very low wage when the picking conditions are poor.

If it was easier for an employer to participate in the H2A program and if there was a more effective way to hook up employees with participating employers, I believe more people would choose to arrive legally, with a work visa. For now, the obstacles, some of which are intentionally designed to make the process difficult for employers, and some of which are designed to protect the visa holders, keep program participation very low among small employers, like us. Still, we are certainly thinking about doing it again next year, as are Jose Manuel, Evodio, Antonio and Jose.