Eno came by the other day to visit. He leaned against his pickup in the driveway as he talked.
He and his family had worked on our farm, starting in the 1990s and up until a few years ago. Both Eno and his wife studied and memorized all kinds of facts related to U.S. history, presidents and the Constitution in order to become citizens. Even Eno’s old papa, Philemon, after two tries, managed to make it to citizenship.
Today, Eno is no longer our farm foreman and he’s nearing retirement, but his daughter and son-in-law own a trucking firm, his other daughter is in law school at University of Idaho, and his son Carlos, is just beginning college. Anyway you cut it, they are a success story of immigrants come to America.
Our current leadership in Washington would like us to believe that immigrants and immigration are a problem to be solved. But from our farming perspective, they are instead a solution. We’re thankful for all that Eno and his family did for our farm, moving irrigation pipes, driving trucks, hoeing fields, picking tare off potato diggers. They worked long, hard hours. Most Idaho farmers and dairymen rely on immigrant labor and frankly, the only real problem we see is how to acquire the workers we need in an efficient and legal manner.
Though the H2A guest worker visa program is a venue for acquiring legal migrants to help during the long farm season, many farmers will tell you the program is problematic. For one thing it can be expensive. Farmers must pay a fee to belong to associations hiring migrant labor. The wage paid for workers is set by the government and can be high for farms that are struggling. Then there’s the paperwork and oversight involved in the process.
Another issue with the H2A program is the stipulation that farm labor jobs must be advertised and offered first to American citizens. This is how we met Matt, an ex-logger from Oregon who saw the advertisement in the newspaper and came to our farm wanting to move irrigation pipe. To Matt’s credit he lasted until mid-summer, but he didn’t get along very well with our other hired men. Finally in July, Matt broke his arm moving irrigation water and had to quit. To be honest, we were all a little relieved.
I don’t know how to supply Idaho farms with the labor we need and ensure that those laborers are all legal and authorized. I can tell you that if the tide of migrant labor is stymied by federal legislation and border walls, the farm economy will be hurt. Much of the produce in grocery stores is picked by migrant laborers. As the American Farm Bureau president said, if we don’t import labor we’ll have to import food — and the cost of doing that will affect all of us.
Diana Hooley writes from her home in Indian Cove.