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
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
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
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
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.