Farmworkers break up ground near St. Paul, Oregon. 2021 is expected to see an uptick in the number of farmworkers coming to the United States on the H-2A visas to meet a large demand for workforce in the country's agriculture sector. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

The American Farm Bureau Federation predicts that by the end of the year, 300,000 positions could be certified under the H-2A Agricultural Guest Worker program, up from approximately 275,000 in 2020.

Demand for workers has been growing for years and is part of a larger shortage of agricultural labor, according to researchers at the USDA Economic Research Service. The program grew from 72,000 guest workers in 2010 to 258,000 in 2019.

The only hiccup in this growth occurred at the start of the pandemic when farmers filled significantly fewer positions than the Department of Labor authorized them to hire. In the first quarter of 2020, only 57,000 visas were issued to temporary foreign workers, even though 81,000 positions were authorized by the Department of Labor. 

But since flagging at the start of the pandemic, the program has resumed its upward trajectory. 

Some researchers say the demand for more guest workers is a result of fewer undocumented workers in the U.S. labor market.

Mexican nationals have been a major source of U.S. farm labor, according to scholars. From 2007 to 2017, 28% fewer undocumented Mexican citizens lived in the United States, according to the USDA. The reduction was due to Mexico’s rising education levels and widening employment opportunities.

Other employer responses to the farm labor shortage have included raising wages and hiring more women, according to a USDA article from the Amber Waves agricultural publication. 

This rise in wages is not reflected in the salaries for H-2A workers: most agricultural employers pay no more than the program’s minimum wage. This rate, set by the Department of Labor, ranges between $11.81 (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina) and $16.34 (Oregon and Washington.) A full list of AEWR in each state can be found on the DOL website

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