Help Wanted: Is the Answer Outside U.S. Borders?

07:29AM Jun 29, 2018
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Finding farm labor is a grueling, thankless task that too often turns into a revolving door of disappointment. Inadequate, underqualified, sometimes even lazy or untrustworthy employees shuffle through without understanding the level of work they’ve signed up for or the importance of their job. High turnover costs producers precious time and thousands of dollars per year on lost productivity, damages due to carelessness, and time in training.

Of course, this is considering you can find candidates in the first place. In rural areas, the pool of candidates to choose from is usually small to nonexistent. Finding the right people to do the job and do it well can seem like an impossible endeavor. But fear not, there is hope; however, you might need to venture outside our country’s borders to find it.

Getting Started

Migrant labor in the agriculture sector is nothing new. This practice has been around for centuries but in today’s age of regulations, rules and red tape, producers find themselves with a quandary—where and how to start.

Aaron Bernard, an attorney with the Bernard Firm that specializes in immigration law, says the first thing a farmer needs to do when struggling with labor issues is to simply ask around. He says talking to other pig farmers they know who are getting foreign labor and are satisfied with their workers is a great place to start. Don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth.



Second, understand your options and know the difference. There are two programs farmers can use to get foreign labor—H-2A and TN Visa. There are significant differences and purposes for each one.


The H-2A program is the more well-known program of the two. It’s more heavily regulated and is seasonal, recurring work. This is usually in a 10-month period with March 1 to December 22 being the most typical period for these workers; however, that timeframe can vary. These workers typically don’t speak English and are not educated. There are specific regulations and requirements that must be met to qualify and there is only certain work they are allowed to do.

In the livestock sector, for instance, H-2A workers are not meant to care for animals but they can manage them. Meaning, their job cannot entail giving shots, monitoring feed rations or other jobs that are specific to the care and welfare of the animal. This greatly limits how much a livestock producer can use them because these workers are more suitable to land and special project needs. 

Bernard says there are four points to keep in mind with the H-2A programs:

  1. Temporary need, up to 10 months of the year
  2. Seasonal work tied to a recurring period of the year
  3. Agricultural work—meaning on a farm or for a farmer
  4. Must be for land or contract work purposes
    1. Planting/harvest
    2. Building projects
    3. Maintenance
    4. Livestock management (but not animal care, this is an important distinction) and this must not be their primary duty



TN Visa 

The TN Visa is through NAFTA and is for professionals who have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. This program isn’t as highly regulated as the H-2A program but still has a specific set of qualifications and requirements. The two major differences between TN and H-2A workers are time and qualifications. TN workers are educated, usually speak English and they are on a three-year work Visa, which is renewable indefinitely. These are career minded individuals who specialize in areas such as animal husbandry, breeding, veterinary medicine, horticulture, etc. There is a specified list of qualifying specialty areas in the current NAFTA agreement. According to Bernard, the four key elements to the TN program are:

  1. Professionals
    1. Veterinarian
    2. Animal husbandry/breeder
    3. Animal scientist
    4. Horticulturalist
  2. Bachelor’s degree is required
  3. Visa is good for up to three years continuously and renewable indefinitely
  4. Can bring dependents, known as a TD (TDs are not eligible for work, only TNs are) 



Finding the right help for the farm is one of the most crucial elements to maintaining a sustainable and profitable farming operation. Knowing options exist and always keeping the old adage “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” in mind should bring some level of comfort to the struggling farmer who can’t seem to find or keep help. Employees are out there but they might not always be in the most convenient places.

Resources to Learn More

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers

TN NAFTA Professionals

U.S. Department of Labor

Work Authorization for Non-U.S. Citizens: Temporary Agricultural Workers (H-2A Visas)

H-2A: Temporary Agricultural Employment of Foreign Workers

Pork Checkoff

Employee Compensation: Where Does Your Farm Fit?