Arkansas’ farmers and ranchers keep grocery stores stocked across the nation and around the world, but many of those producers are facing a bare cupboard when it comes to workers. An already-tight labor market and COVID-19 related travel restrictions have sounded alarms from Wabbaseka to Washington D.C.
“So many farmers had been calling into the H-2A program, which we’re heavily reliant upon, which is effectively shut down as a result of the COVID-19 protocol,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford (R., Dist. 1), referring to the federal mechanism which provides a legal channel for foreign migrant workers to provide temporary field hand support. “It’s put them in a bit of a crunch.”
The H-2A program, administered through the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has as recently as April 20 amended its regulations, including streamlining hiring and amending the length of time a worker can legally remain in the U.S. But the issues caused by COVID-19 are more elemental to the problem, Crawford said.
“Can we fix the H2A program and make it better? Well, yeah, we certainly can, but it doesn’t address what other countries are going to do with regard to travel to the United States. For example, South Africa is locked down, they’re just not letting anybody travel,” he said.
“And, keep in mind, [the U.S. is] a Level 4 travel advisory threat internationally. We tend to think of the rest of the world kind in the abstract, but they’re looking at the United States, we’ve got the [COVID-19] issue here and other nations are issuing travel advisories saying don’t go to the United States.”
Alongside the situation on the farm, a growing number of Arkansans were being laid off or furloughed from their jobs. Thus was Crawford inspired to launch FarmCorps, a means of connecting people looking for work with the farmers and ranchers who are ready to put them to good use. And he knew exactly which population to dip into first.
“I really don’t know how this popped into my head, but I’m a veteran and I worked on farms as a kid and even after I had been in and out of the Army,” he said. “So, it just occurred to me; what about these military folks that are displaced because of this? There’s a lot of military that have skills that are readily applicable to agriculture. They’re highly trainable, they’re highly motivated, they’re highly mission-oriented and they want to work.”
“It just occurred to me that maybe we need to target some of these types of people and take another approach of how we field these positions.”
Crawford discussed the idea with Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin, who immediately started making connections with various entities in the state including Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas National Guard, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and state Department of Agriculture, among others. FarmCorps is not a formal government program, nor is it supported by any federal funds, which Griffin said probably explains why the idea has come to life so quickly.
“There is no bureaucracy with this,” he said. “We had a call on it on a Thursday or Friday and I think we put out a press release just within days. It is taking off and I’m excited about that.”
“Because there’s no bureaucracy to work through, it’s moving quickly. It’s a matter of people indicating on social media that they have this need and other people seeing that the need exists. Boom! It’s working. I think it’s awesome. I haven’t seen anyone try to slow it down or get territorial. It’s about the people that need workers and the workers who want to work. All we’re doing is pairing them up.”
There are nearly 50,000 farms statewide, per the Arkansas Farm Bureau, and 97 percent of them are family-owned operations. Agriculture contributes food, fiber and shelter worth $16 billion to the state’s economy every year. Given that, labor needs are substantial, especially with the loss of temporary migrant workers, although officials don’t yet know how severe the need really is.
“You have some farmers who need two or three workers and then you have some farmers who need 12 and 15. Some need them for six months and some need them permanently,” said Jason Smedley, assistant director for government relations and public affairs with Arkansas Farm Bureau. “One thing we’re trying to collect from the farmers is what county you’re in, how many workers you need, how long do you need them. I think right now it’s in the hundreds. I’m getting more farmers reach out to me every day.”
Smedley, himself a veteran, said the process for posting jobs is as easy as filling out an online form. And prospective workers can see the growing list of jobs online as well. After that, it’s left between prospective employer and potential employee.
“In the predicament that we’re in now, we’re looking for any and every means to support our farmers and right now they are in need of workers,” Smedley says. “They’re in need of people who are willing to come on the farm and assist that farming operation so that we can continue to provide for not only our state but our country.”
Crawford, whose idea is now being replicated in several other states, said the connection to military members was just a starting point; individuals seeking work through FarmCorps do not have to have any connection to military service to participate.
“The interesting thing that we’re seeing is that college students have taken an interest in this and so the question that I’m getting is, ‘Well, are you going to allow non-military?’ Absolutely,” he said. “One post, a young man says, ‘I’m a college baseball player. I’m not in school and we’re not playing baseball and it’s going to be a while before I do. I was raised on a hog farm so I want to go and work.’ That’s the kind of thing that we’re hoping for.”
Employers seeking to post jobs and those looking for work are encouraged to visit FarmCorps’ Facebook pagefor more information. Workers can view available jobs at theUniversity of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Research and Extension website.