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August 27, 2008   Email to Friend 

Jeff Helms
(334) 613-4212
August 27, 2008

Dan Bremer of AgWorks, Inc., visits with farmers following his presentation on the H2A program. From left are Bremer, Oliver Washington IV and Oliver Washington III of Shore Acres Plant Farm in Theodore, Glen Strange of Panhandle Growers in Pensacola and Rene West of Executive Landscape in Pensacola.
MOBILE, Ala., Aug. 26 -- Farmers from Autauga County to the Florida Panhandle worked overtime Tuesday night as they gathered in Mobile to discuss one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture - a shortage of dependable workers.

"Labor on the farm is the worst problem in agriculture today," said Dan Bremer of AgWorks, Inc., as he kicked off an H2A Seminar sponsored by the Mobile County Farmers Federation's Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Committee.

More than 35 farmers were on hand for the seminar, which not only examined the requirements of the federal H2A guest worker program, but also challenged farmers to make lawmakers aware of their labor needs.

"Farmers need to lobby their congressman and senators to get a better program. They need to know their congressman and senators on a first-name basis," said Bremer, a retired district director for the U.S. Department of Labor in Atlanta.

Despite the added costs and high volume of paperwork involved with H2A workers, Bremer said farmers shouldn't be hesitant to utilize the program. Oliver Washington IV of Shore Acres Plant Farm in Theodore agreed. He's been using H2A guest workers for about eight years and has been pleased with the results.

"Farmers who haven't used this program will have to learn the steps to get into this process, and it will take a year to set up," Washington said. "But once it is set up, they will learn how cost effective it is, especially with the labor crisis we are in."

When asked about the paperwork, Washington was quick to respond.

"It's worth it," he said. "We've had the same people for almost 10 years. They are a good group of guys from an agricultural area in Mexico. They grew up around plants, so they know what to do."

Washington's experience with immigrant workers is not unusual. Andy Thornburg, a row crop farmer, and Mark Williams, a nursery grower, were among Mobile County farmers who shared their labor stories.

"We've had the same three workers for the past two years, and they're just like family," Thornburg said.

Harold Gaines traveled 206 miles (one way) to attend the seminar. He's interested in using guest workers at his producer-owned gin and farm near Autaugaville.

"In agriculture, it's coming to this," Gaines said. "On larger operations, especially labor-intensive operations like vegetables and produce, you can't hire good help. The ones you can hire are often not qualified, not motivated or both."

Bremer, whose AgWorks company manages the H2A paperwork for Washington and hundreds of other farmers across the country, admits the regulations governing the use of guest workers are cumbersome. However, he doubts the program will be changed for at least two years. In the meantime, he says farmers can benefit from H2A labor if they understand and follow the rules.

"Farmers need to know there is an alternative to using illegal aliens, and that's the H2A program," Bremer said.

Mac Higginbotham, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation's Horticulture and Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Division, commended the Mobile County committee for sponsoring the meeting.

"It will be a benefit to a lot of folks in our industry," he said. "Being new, my goal is to see what I can get from this and pass it on to others as well. There are a lot of farmers out there who need help - dependable help."

Tommy Odom, chairman of the Mobile County Greenhouse Nursery and Sod Committee, credited Area Organization Director Paul Brown for helping to organize the meeting and Federation lobbyist Brian Hardin for recommending Bremer as a speaker. In addition to the 35 farmers attending in Mobile, Odom said Extension Agent James Miles arranged for other farmers to watch via videoconference at locations in Birmingham and Clanton. In addition, the Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association helped promote the seminar to its members.

"What started as an idea to have a seminar for farmers in Mobile and Baldwin counties has developed into a real good meeting," Odom said. "It shows how important this issue is, and I hope they get some useful information."

"Labor is getting harder to find. It's going to be more and more important in the future to make sure you have legal labor," Odom added. "My operation is so small, I don't foresee using the program, but the larger nurseries and farms have to do something, and this is a good way to go."

During his presentation, Bremer outlined the rules related to hiring guest workers including those pertaining to wages, housing, transportation, field sanitation, recordkeeping, overtime and child labor. He also cautioned farmers that delays at consulates in foreign countries could extend the amount of time needed to hire workers through the H2A program. Unlike the H2B program for non-agriculture workers, there is no limit on the number of H2A workers that can be hired. The workers can work up to 10 months in the United States before returning to their home country.

For more information about AgWorks and the H2A program, visit www.agworksinc.com.

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