The USDA warned on Monday that the production of tomatoes, sweet corn and sweet potatoes, as well as other U.S.-grown vegetables, “may be affected by disruptions of foreign labor flows.”
The agency said an estimated 10 percent of all hired farm workers are foreign nationals employed on temporary work visas under the H-2A agricultural workers program.
On March 18, the Trump administration had suspended routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa (H-2A visas) processing in Mexico, including for temporary migrant laborers. The State Department then relaxed the restrictions on April 20.
The monthlong suspension, however, may now lead to a shortage of seasonal workers on such work visas, impacting the harvesting of some popular vegetables.
H-2A application disclosure data through the second quarter of FY2020 revealed that a “significant majority” of the H-2A workers with job start dates of mid-March or later had been hired as laborers for asparagus, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
“These five vegetable commodities, therefore, are among those most likely to be affected by a short-term reduction in the inflow of H-2A workers,” the USDA said.
Together, these vegetables accounted for 12 percent of the total production value of U.S. vegetables in 2019.
In 2019, tomatoes for the fresh market, harvested by hand, were valued at $705 million, while sweet corn production, typically harvested by hand or machine, was valued at $652 million, and sweet potatoes, for which workers are required for machine operation and post-harvest handling, was valued at $588 million.
The above chart is based on the USDA Economic Research Service’s Vegetables and Pulses Outlook reports and H-2A application disclosure data from the Department of Labor.