Weeks into the sugar cane harvest, farmers are happy to have made it through the season without a hurricane and many are relieved to have dodged another storm that could have swept away their labor.
Farmers say this year’s crop is producing above average tonnage with good sugar content. Yet, the crop was at risk for 171 Louisiana farmers when the contractor they used to supply most of their labor ran afoul of the law.
Due to the temporary nature of the employment and the demanding nature of the work, sugar cane farmers depend on the availability of nonimmigrant foreign workers using short-term visas through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program.
Mike Accardo, a Patterson farmer, said without the visa workers, planting and harvesting sugar cane would not be feasible under current market conditions.
“We cannot find local workers. These workers come here from Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and other places in Latin America,” Accardo said. “They work hard and are dependable every day, sometimes seven days a week.”
Except in extraordinary circumstances, the employment of these workers under the visa program lasts no longer than one year.
Brian Breaux of the Louisiana Farm Bureau said farmers would prefer to hire local labor but are unable to do so despite advertising for it.
“Nobody uses the H-2A program out of a first choice,” Breaux said.
Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League, said the process for using H-2A workers is expensive, time consuming and involves a great deal of paperwork. Therefore farmers hire contractors to locate and deliver the workers and fill out the required paperwork.
Earlier this year, the Department of Labor uncovered irregularities in some Louisiana H-2A applications filed by one of the contract agencies, Linda White & Associates. Egan Reich, a Department of Labor representative, said the penalties for non-compliance with the H-2A program rules can include debarment from the program and possible fines, including for the farmers.
Through no fault of their own, scores of Louisiana farmers using that agency were at risk of losing their workers.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, was involved in working to resolve the issue.
“Sugar farmers in Louisiana should not be punished for the mistakes of others. Not only would this have unfairly penalized our farmers, but it would have threatened this year’s sugar cane harvest,” Landrieu said.
Mike Robichaux, a fifth-generation farmer who farms in Patterson and Centerville, points out how vital the visa workers are to sugar cane farmers and the consequences of losing those workers.
“We might not even get our crop planted if it were not for the H-2A workers,” Robichaux said. “This is not a desirable job for most of our local labor force. Some come out and try it but they don’t stay.”
Accardo said farmers rely on the agent to make sure all the legalities are met and several area farmers were worried about being penalized because of using Linda White & Associates.
Ricky Gonsoulin harvests cane in New Iberia and was one of the farmers who used visa workers through the agency.
“I was extremely worried about what would happen at the time,” Gonsoulin said. “We cannot do without the H-2A program and the workers we get through it.” He said he used 21 H-2A workers this season, seven of which are still working during the harvest.
“Getting new workers is a 30 to 60 day process,” Gonsoulin said. “It would have set us way back in operations.”
Landrieu said she was contacted by the Louisiana Farm Bureau, the American Sugar Cane League and farmers to intervene on their behalf since the farmers were unaware that Linda White & Associates had not followed the rules.
Linda White & Associates has been disbarred from the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program labor certification for three years, according to the Department of Labor website.