Agricultural workers often hard to find

VIRGINIA BEACH—Finding good help seems to be a universal problem in the agriculture industry.

“You can’t find local labor to do the field work,” said John Cromwell, co-owner of Cromwell Farms in Virginia Beach. So eight years ago he began using the federal H-2A program, which offers “a reliable source of (foreign) labor that’s government-approved.”

The H-2A program was started in 1986 to allow farmers to hire legal, temporary foreign workers.

Cromwell has had the same two workers come from Mexico to help him plant and harvest fruits and vegetables on 60 acres for the past eight years. This year, however, news of the H1N1 virus broke at the same time his workers were supposed to travel to Virginia.

“We had difficulty getting them across the border,” Cromwell said. The embassy where the H-2A workers pick up their passports was closed for several weeks.

“We lost several crops because of that,” Cromwell said. But despite the setback, he said hiring H-2A workers is his best option.

Mike Cullipher, co-owner of Cullipher Farms here, said his operation falls in the cracks labor-wise. “We’re big enough that we can’t do everything ourselves, but small enough that it’s hard to justify hiring workers through the H-2A program.”

However, Cullipher said, it’s hard to find reliable local help because the hours are sporadic and most workers younger than 30 want to work near the oceanfront, not stooped over in a field.

He said earlier this year he hired three workers. One put in three hours before quitting, another lasted until lunchtime and the third worked until 3 that afternoon and then quit.

Jim Saunders, personnel director for Saunders Brothers, Inc., a nursery and orchard operation in Nelson County, and Dana Boyle, who helps run Garner’s Produce in Westmoreland County, both said they have found the H-2A program is the best way to hire reliable workers.

Like Cromwell and Cullipher, they have had difficulty finding local help. When Saunders Brothers wanted to expand a decade ago, they hired 18 local workers between March 1 and June 1. Only one lasted until the end of the season in November, Saunders said. The rest worked an average of three days before quitting.

Boyle said last year she hired two local workers. One worked for three hours before quitting; the other never even showed up.

Contact Cromwell at 757-721-6226, Cullipher at 757-636-7620, Saunders at 434-277-5455 or Boyle at 804-761-2412.

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