The H-2A visa program: Seasonal labor for farmers
by Walter Conlon
August 14, 2020

Back in the days when I had a lot more hair and it was a different color, a staple of summer work for young Iowans was detasseling corn. While the work was hard, and the sun could be brutal, it provided work experience for young people and a start on their employment careers. However, these days, young Iowans, and Americans in general, do not want to do seasonal farm work, leaving many farmers with a labor shortage for work which cannot wait. It is for this reason that Congress in 1986 established the H-2A visa program to allow farmers unable to find sufficient US workers to bring in seasonal help from abroad.

The program has experienced slow but accelerating growth; in 1997, the first year for which records were kept, US farmers brought in 16,011 foreign seasonal workers; by 2014, that number had increased to 89,274.

While in the past, the program suffered from government delays and denials, leaving farmers with crops rotting in the fields, the government has taken several initiatives which are already showing substantial results in reduced costs and bureaucratic snafus.

To qualify for the program, in most cases, the farm has to be seasonal; year-round operations such as livestock and dairy farms need not apply, and have to apply for green cards, which is a longer process, if they cannot find US workers. However, the process of approval now is short, taking about 75 days from start to finish, and the paperwork involved is not overwhelming.

However, to protect US jobs and the foreign workers, the farmer has to pay an annually calculated minimum wage (currently $14.58 per hour in Iowa) and has to provide free approved housing and transportation for the workers. However, since foreign workers tend to be highly competent and motivated, many farmers find the higher wages justified by the results. Our firm, for example, has brought in workers from rural Ukraine, where the perennially depressed economy and the conflict with Russia has resulted in a glut of motivated and educated workers eager for any job which pays wages anywhere near the H-2A minimum.

The program has also become more flexible. For example, farmers with complementary labor needs long have been able to apply together to hire one or more workers together. The government anticipates that next year, it will allow staggered dates of need. For example, where a farmer needs one worker to start in June and two more to start in August, they can be processed together in one application.

Although Iowa is a major farming state, it has not been a big user of H-2A labor, welcoming only 106 guest workers in 2013. However, one can anticipate that as local labor sources dry up, and Iowa farmers become more acquainted with the program, that number will increase in coming years.

If you have any questions or need further information on the program, feel free to contact me at (563) 676-6307 or

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