America’s seasonal agricultural industry, mainly what is classified as specialty crops production and processing, continues to suffer a perceived labor shortage because of limited foreign workers this spring. There are two main reasons—delays in processing of visas for temporary workers and fewer migratory workers.

The American Farm Bureau Federation issued a statement about delays in processing of visas for workers. AFBF issued a request that the paperwork for processing H-2A seasonal farm workers’ entry to the U.S. be sped up. The organizations noted that more than 20 state Farm Bureaus have reported temporary worker shortages causing the loss of unharvested crops.

“Many farmer members have called us and state Farm Bureaus asking for help,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall. “They face serious hurdles in getting visas for workers in time to tend and harvest this year’s crops. Paperwork delays have created a backlog of 30 days or more in processing H-2A applications at both the Department of Labor and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.”

On the same day that Duvall and the AFBF were bemoaning the paperwork delays limiting foreign temporary farm workers. Ball State University issued a report on the lack of U.S. temporary workers migrating with the seasonal harvest of specialty crops—historically moving from the South to the North as various crops mature and need picked.

The research study titled “Why Do Fewer Agricultural Workers Migrate Now?” was published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. The study found farm workers who migrate and work on multiple farms during a growing season dropped from 55 percent in 1998 to 20 percent in 2009. There is no indication the situation has improved since those years’ data was studied.

The study refers to unauthorized or illegal alien workers, many of which have been weeded out of the work force with so much recent attention on deporting workers who have illegally entered the U.S. to work.

One point noted in the study appears contrary to general opinion. The lead author said granting legal status to unauthorized agricultural workers already in the country might further reduce the number of workers willing to migrate and, thus, not be as helpful as might be expected in easing a perceived labor shortage.

“We found that U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents were more likely to migrate than unauthorized workers during the 1998–2009 period. Apparently, stricter border enforcement during this period made unauthorized workers less willing to migrate within the United States because they feared such a migration would raise the odds of being caught,” said Maoyong Fan, an economics professor at Ball State and the study’s lead author.

Workers who have higher incomes and live with a spouse and children in the U.S. are less likely to migrate, research found. In contrast, married workers who are not living with their families are more likely to migrate. Agriculture and labor have historically been linked by the need for seasonal demand and migrant workers, many from Mexico, the study notes.

“Despite a steady total agricultural workforce, substantial decreases in this stream of mobile workers—both documented and undocumented—since the late 1990s have contributed to farmers’ perceptions of labor shortages, which have been widely reported previously in the media,” Fan said.  “Our research is the first study that shows that a true ‘labor shortage’ may be experienced by farmers despite stable worker totals.”

One interpretation of study information is that farmers are having a harder time finding seasonal laborers, but filling the need could be more about having more guest workers in the U.S. than finding permanent resident workers.

And statements by AFBF’s Duvall seems to reinforce the need for more action to fill labor needs with foreign workers by having in place timely government agencies’ approval procedures and congressional action to allow more foreign workers.

Duvall repeated AFBF’s call for Congress to pass responsible immigration reform that provides farmers access to a legal and stable workforce. AFBF has outlined possible solutions to the challenge—part of which is modernizing agency H-2A approval procedures that should include sending documents electronically rather than by regular mail.