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Farm workers pick Mirasol Chile in Pueblo County, Colorado. (PULP Photo)

Trump on the Farm: Southeastern Colorado’s growers seem immune to President’s immigration, trade policies

Despite national media reports that immigration and foreign trade policies from the Trump administration are hurting who they’re meant to help —U.S. farmers — there’s no smoking gun southeastern Colorado farmers are sharing that experience.

For instance, some say that Trump’s tough-on-immigration policy is making it difficult for farmers to hire H2A-visa workers to tend their fields. That doesn’t seem to be the case, at least in southeastern Colorado.

Marilyn Bay Drake, executive director of the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, said that the ongoing H2A worker issues have existed well before Trump took office. Among the problems farmers face, she said, lies with E-Verify — the internet-based system that is used by growers to determine whether foreign workers are eligible to work in the U.S.

Bay Drake said E-Verify must undergo significant changes or even be abolished altogether because far too often growers have to turn down potential farm workers because their names do not appear on E-Verify rolls.

Sakata Farms, located near Brighton, left the sweet corn business last year, mostly because it was not able to get a dependable work crew for its six-week season, Bay Drake said. The family operation has grown sweet corn for over half a century.

“They were a big grower,” Bay Drake said. “The annual maintenance cost of their packing house alone was about ($333,000) – so a huge hit to the local community.”

Identifying the problems

The problems farmers face are often times complex.

Reid Fishering, owner of Mountain Quality Marketing in Montrose, told U.S. Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Purdue in a meeting this May that the process is just plain complicated.

“For our short window of harvest, we hire about 120 workers through the H2A program to pick sweet corn,” Fishering said. “I’m looking to work with the Department of Labor, who processes these visas, in a simple, streamlined way. The process is overly complicated and creates costly delays.”

Perdue said he wants his department to be the portal for the H2A visa applications and to coordinate with the State Department, Labor Department and Homeland Security to more efficiently issue the work visas.

But Sakata farms wants the H2A program to be more flexible by allowing workers to move between nearby farms. He says currently the program does not let growers send their workers to neighboring farms if those growers’ crops aren’t ready for harvest, but their neighboring growers have crops that are ripe. “This doesn’t make sense and is really costly,” he told Perdue.

Not enough housing for H2A workers is another issue facing Colorado growers, Bay Drake said. She believes that more cooperation between growers and possibly government assistance would be needed to build more temporary housing for H2A workers.

In that meeting with Purdue, Gail Knapp of Knapp’s Farms in Rocky Ford said she would like to see H2A workers’ wage, housing and transportation costs all rolled into a single payment. Knapp told Pulp that growers like her not only pay for housing and utilities, but for transportation for the workers to the fields and the grocery store, and even transportation from and back to Mexico.

Those housing and transportation expenses equate to about $3 to $6 of the hourly wages the growers pay workers, according to Knapp. That’s on top of Colorado’s minimum wage.

Still, she said she hasn’t seen the Trump administration making a huge difference. But under the Obama administration getting H2A workers became more difficult. The Bush administration, she said, was more employer-friendly when it came to H2A workers.

Eric Hanagan, owner of Hanagan Farms in Swink, said finding workers isn’t much of a problem for his operation,

“They are standing in line for visas,” he said, adding that he’s had H2A workers come from Mexico and as far off as South Africa and Eastern European countries to pick his 27 varieties of vegetable crops corn, wheat, and hay.

“One of the best crews I have ever had, came from Thailand,” Hanagan said.

Not Taking American jobs

Bay Drake said it is a fallacy when people say H2A workers are taking away American jobs. She explained that many times local workers do express an interest in becoming farmhands, but after they show up for job orientations and they realize the work that is involved, they never are seen again. She said it’s hard to find people locally willing to work 50 hours a week during Colorado’s short harvest seasons, and then those workers have to put up with no work for the rest of the year.

In Monte Vista, Carla Worley of Worley Farms  said her crops, potatoes, barley and quinoa,  require a short, one-month harvest season, so she isn’t even eligible to hire workers through the H2A program. She said she finds it difficult to find non-H2A farmhands who want to work the long hours needed during harvest time.

According to Worley, most of the workers she does find are on public assistance and, as a result, will only work 30 hours a week. “Now it’s less than 30 hours since the state increased the minimum wage,” she said, adding as a result of her workers’ short work week, she has to find more farmhands.

Human vs. Machine

Technology in the form of robotics might someday help southeast Colorado farmers reduce the H2A worker costs.

CFVGA this year awarded  Tortuga AgTech, a robotic harvesting and precision agriculture company from Lakewood, for providing its top Tech Pitch at the association’s Fourth Annual Conference. About 300 Colorado growers, allied industries and other produce enthusiasts all cast votes.

Tortuga AgTech’s website pitches ag robots as a benefit.

“The automation of picking, packing, and trimming will reduce significantly the manual labor hours needed to grow produce,” the website said. “It will also increase yields through denser layouts and optimized grow conditions. And, we’ll help create full-time local technical jobs as well.”

The company isn’t talking to media just yet, but the type of automiation AgTech is working on just might be the future of rural America.

But Knapp doubts robots will ever be able to pick melons for her Arkansas River Valley operation. She said that only trained farmhands can discern green melons from ripe melons, which often grow side-by-side. Knapp added that cantaloupes and watermelons in her fields grow on uneven ground creating another challenge for robots.

Exports

Now reports point to Trump’s fluctuating trade policies as a major impediment to agricultural exports to foreign countries.

But that isn’t quite the case either in southeastern Colorado. Mostly because producers there don’t do more foreign exporting.

Chuck Hanagan, director for the USDA’s Otero County and Crowley County Farm Service Agencies, said he knows of no growers in his region who export crops to foreign countries.

“Most of what we grow goes to the Front Range, maybe some to Oklahoma,” he said.

Yet Worley of Worley Farms in the San Luis Valley said that Trump’s trade policies have not affected her operation, which does export potatoes to Mexico.

Most of her export problems are coming from intense competition with potato growers in Mexico. And that’s unrelated to Trump’s policies.

Trade policies haven’t impacted Roger Mix of Mix Farms in Center, also in the San Luis Valley, either. He also exports to Mexico. Mix, who in addition to potatoes, grows malt, barley and some lettuce on his 900-acre operation, said he is working with the Mexican potato growers’ association, CONPAPA, to reopen all markets in that country.

He said currently he is only exporting to a small area of northern Mexico just south of El Paso, Texas. He said at one time he was able to export his potatoes to the whole country. It was reported last year, by a company called Agri-Pulse Communications, that CONPAPA had won a lawsuit to effectively shut down potato exports from the U.S.

Chris Wiseman, a longtime director of the Colorado State Fair with a political background in agriculture – said that Mexico, a longtime agricultural trading partner, is looking to abandon trade with the U.S. and is instead seeking other countries to partner with in South America.

Wiseman is the Deputy Commissioner for the Colorado Department of Agriculture and a current candidate for a Pueblo County Commission seat.

He said that once agricultural trade ties with the U.S. and Mexico are severed it would take a long time for those ties to be re-established.

Bay Drake said that those growers who engage in foreign trade, once established trade avenues dry up, would flood the local markets – think area farmers’ markets, King Soopers and Safeway – with produce what otherwise would have been exported, thereby bringing down the price produce for all U.S. growers.