Harmony Valley Farm
90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles south
of La Crosse
Years farming: Since
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 predators
• 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
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
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.