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Colorado growers face “risk like we have never faced before” as coronavirus puts up labor walls

Work in the "essential" agriculture industry can go on, but the pandemic’s threat to the market has shaken some Western Slope farmers and orchard men to their roots. Others call the panic overblown.

Joe Harold drives a tractor along Easter Road west of Olathe Colo., Friday March 27, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Like nearly all farmers, David Harold is well used to uncertainty. He grew up in his family’s Olathe-based business, Tuxedo Corn, steeped in the inevitable risks tied to weather, shifting markets and labor problems.

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But he is rattled to his roots by the risk posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“The amount of risk we face has exploded this year,” Harold said. “It is risk like we have never faced before. It’s a nuthouse trying to figure out what to do.”

Farming has been deemed an essential industry, so growers like the Harolds can continue their work during the forced shutdown of so many other businesses. But they are beginning the busy spring planting season with a heap of unanswered questions.

Will they be able to bring in enough migrant workers? Will coronavirus-related delays mean those workers won’t be here in time to get the crops in the ground or trees and vines readied? Could the border with Mexico be closed entirely? What if workers get sick with the virus? What can growers do to try to keep workers safe? And will the economy be so devastated and the population still so locked down come harvest time that there won’t be much of a market for fresh produce?

From orchards to vegetable patches to vineyards to acres of field crops, growers say they are feeling similar angst as they wade into a whole new agriculture complexity. They also feel the weight of knowing they are entrusted with providing food for nervous, hunkered down consumers who are suddenly facing empty grocery store shelves.

Workers from Mexico tend to onions on Mike Ahlberg’s farm near Olathe, Colorado, in 2006. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Harold was caught in a desperate pinch in the past few weeks because the pandemic has delayed processing of visas for migrant workers. He didn’t know if he would have the 22 H-2A agricultural visa workers from Mexico he needs to build fences and to prepare the fields for planting and irrigating. After long days on phones with various consulates, airlines, bus companies and hotels, he finally learned in early April that 19 workers are headed his way.

To ensure a harvest, the Harolds face more nail-biting times; they need to bring in 35 more workers in May and another 90 in July.

Now that he knows he will have some workers, Harold has had to cobble together a new system to try to keep those workers safe. He has hired a nurse to check their health when they arrive, he has prepared a presentation about guarding their health in the pandemic, and he has set aside some worker housing as possible quarantine quarters if there are sick workers.

Gut clenching in the orchards near Hotchkiss

In the nearby Hotchkiss orchard country, an organic farm is trying to look into the future and figure out if there is a market for a crop that consumers usually covet.

“I’m having more of a gut clench this year,” said Steve Ela, who is responsible for the success of a Hotchkiss fruit operation that has been in his family since 1907. Ela Family Farms has produced fruit through the Spanish flu epidemic, the Depression and two world wars.

Like all orchard crops, Ela’s 80 acres of trees are established and can’t be scaled back in anticipation of reduced demand. He will still have loads of peaches, pears, apples, cherries and plums even if farmers markets are shut down this year because of distancing rules.    

He said 40% to 50% of the operation’s income comes from farmers markets. “My concern is that we are spending money on a crop every day – we have to take care of the trees – but we don’t know what kind of market we will have.”

A run on dry beans leads to rationing at a farm stand

Leta Nieslanik, whose family runs Okagawa Farms in Grand Junction, has been optimistically hanging flowering baskets outside the family’s produce stand even though she has no idea if people will be able to afford them this spring. Customers so far have been buying up bags of dried beans in such large quantities she had to impose limits. But it’s the flower sales that normally bring in some early-season income to subsidize the payroll at the Okagawa market until the fresh vegetables are ready.

“The flowers aren’t a necessity so I don’t know what to expect,” she said.

Nieslanik is also nervous about whether changes in the H-2A agricultural visa system mean she won’t have the 45 experienced migrant workers she will need to harvest chiles, cucumbers, tomatoes and the many other traditional crops at Okagawa. She knows there may be cash-strapped locals looking for work this summer, but from experience she knows they rarely last at the punishing field work.

“We’ve been extremely worried about that part,” Nieslanik said.

Kimberly Noland, who works as an H-2A agent for a number of growers in the Western Slope farm country, said farmers are right to worry when it comes to labor this year.

She said coronavirus-generated delays in interviews for migrant workers in Mexico, along with a change in who is allowed to return to work, may mean that the arrival of workers could be delayed a month – not a change easily accommodated in the farm industry.

“A lot of growers could come up short,” Noland said.

A worker cultivates the soil in a Herman Produce peach orchard near Palisade on Nov. 18, 2019. (Ed Kosmicki, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A slew of changes on both sides of the border are contributing to the worker problem. U.S. consulates in Mexico have suspended routine immigrant visa services because of the threat of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

The U.S. State Department is currently offering visa processing only to returning workers who don’t need in-person interviews. That could reduce the estimated number of available H-2A workers by 60,000 nationally. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security have issued new rules that are ostensibly supposed to help fill agriculture worker jobs during the pandemic, but those changes haven’t yet resulted in reducing the backlog for visas.

Changes in requirements have also made it impossible for some of the more long-term H-2A workers to get approved. Those workers who have been coming to the United States for years are no longer being granted visas if they have what are termed “red flags” on their records. Noland said a “red flag” could mean a worker crossed the border to work without approval 25 years ago. The red flags are cutting out some of the most experienced workers who often have been coming back to the same farm operations for decades.

“Things are changing on all this almost daily,” Noland said.

When it comes to the safety of migrant workers, no government rules have been issued. The Economic Policy Institute has released a white paper suggesting how to keep workers safe through the same sorts of social distancing and hygiene measures now in place for the general population.

But the institute paper points out that many migrant workers already labor under what can be unhealthy conditions – conditions now compounded by the coronavirus. They usually live in communal housing and eat communal meals. They are often transported to fields and orchards in vans or other shared vehicles. Some of their work, such as packing shed jobs, take place in close contact to others.

If even one worker gets sick, it could easily be passed on and could result in quarantining of an entire crew.

“To start with, I worry about exposing my guys to the virus by busing them up here,” Harold said.

Some growers are ahead in the visa game

Bruce Talbott at Talbott Farms in Palisade is not as worried as some. He said he has the early H-2A workers he needs – about 50 in the fields and 20 who work in the sheds at the state’s largest fruit operation.

“We are ahead of the game on that,” he said.

Talbott said he believes the coronavirus fears are inflated. In conservative rural farm country, he is not alone in that belief. He said his coronavirus attitude is bolstered by one of his brothers who is an emergency department physician and views the pandemic panic as overblown.

Crews from Talbott Farms, the largest grape producer in Colorado, rush to harvest before a hard freeze near Palisade, on Oct. 10, 2019. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Talbott said he doesn’t worry much about the health of the workers because they already live a life of social distancing: They mostly work outside where they can spread out. They aren’t exposed to many people from off the farms because they live together and tend to stay close to their lodging. The only time they are around other people, Talbott said, is on Sundays, when they make shopping trips to Walmart. He said good hygiene has been stressed at Talbott Farms prior to the pandemic.

“So, it is not much change for many of them,” Talbott said.

Bob Byer at the Producers Co-op in Olathe, also sees some “hysteria” in the coronavirus response.

“As a business our challenge is trying to get through this hysteria,” said Byers, who has been selling dry beans, wood pellets, garden seeds and animal feed “like crazy” to farm-country customers worried about the coronavirus and its effect on supplies.

“It’s been a feeding frenzy for dry edible beans of all types,” Byers said.

That doesn’t mean that bean farmers can celebrate while other growers worry. The run on beans hasn’t raised the profits going to farmers. The only bright spot for bean farmers is that their crops are mechanized so they don’t have the labor worries bedeviling other segments of the agriculture industry.

Some are already seeing light at the other side of the pandemic 

Growers across the Colorado crop spectrum say they see reason for some optimism on the far side of the pandemic. They say they believe empty store shelves will make consumers more aware, and more appreciative, of those who grow their food — particularly those who grow it locally. They hope the worker scramble in the pandemic will bring increased pressure to fix a guest agricultural worker program that is too onerous and risky even in the best of times. They hold out hope that workers in the future might be approved for three-year visas rather than a single year.

Harold said he saw the optimism of perennially gambling farmers recently when Tuxedo Corn held a meeting of corn growers to lay out the risks of starting a crop during a pandemic and to ask the growers if any of them wanted to back out before planting time. No one did.

 At Ela Farms, Ela said his 95-year-old mother recently gave him some long-view perspective on the pandemic when she came into his office and proclaimed that she has never seen anything like this. But she added that she doesn’t live in fear – for the farm, or for herself.

“She is taking it all in stride,” Ela said. “That tells me something.”

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