Arkansas produces roughly 50 percent of the rice that is grown in the United States with about 1.5 million acres under cultivation. Producers rely heavily on highly-skilled H-2A visa workers from South Africa. So, it sent shock waves throughout the industry when President Joe Biden announced a South African travel ban in late January that was based on concerns about new variants of Covid-19.
USA Rice and other agricultural organizations sprang into action alerting members to the potential problem and working within the federal government to address the problem. More quickly than expected, H-2A visa workers were exempted from the ban.
Ben Mosely, vice president for USA Rice, said they were pleasantly surprised by the quick resolution—especially during the presidential transition.
“Part of what we were struggling with was there was no secretary for the Department of Homeland Security or for the USDA in place as the appointees were still going through the confirmation process,” Mosely said. “But before a letter from members of Congress to the Acting Secretary of DHS on the issue was even finalized, the administration realized the importance of these workers and did the right thing by granting an exception for H-2A visa workers.
It is estimated about 5,000 H-2A visa workers from South Africa come to the United States to help with planting, growing and harvesting of rice and other grain crops. About 1,200 of those come to Arkansas.
“We were very worried when we heard they were not coming,” said rice grower Jennifer James, H & J Land Company, Newport, who farms with her husband and father on 6,000 acres averaging 2,000 to 3,000 acres of rice per year.
“We have three H-2A contract workers scheduled to come this year, which will probably be 20-25 percent of our labor force for the crop season,” James said. “These young men come with a great deal of knowledge about how to operate sophisticated machinery, including GPS systems on tractors and harvesters. Obviously, when you hire anyone, experience is valuable. Our inability to attract local workers is always a concern. Arkansas State University-Newport has a new ag technician program. Highlighting how we can educate local people to fill these positions is something we need to be talking about.”
Precautions will be taken for the H-2A workers to have a negative test for COVID-19 before entering the country. Plus, the South African COVID-19 variant is only one of several variants of concern identified in the United States. The CDC has warned the U.K. variant may be dominant in the United States by March.
James said there is a lot of government paperwork documenting housing and transportation requirements for H-2A workers that even in a normal year that can cause delays.
“It is extraordinary with the pandemic on top of all the normal regulations,” James said.