Zoe Schacht is a journalism student in the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU Boulder. This story was written as part of a package of reporting on COVID-19 by students in Assistant Professor Christine Larson's class, Writing for the Media. All stories have been lightly edited for style and updated based on new information.
On April 13, most of Colorado was asleep, but nestled within a valley along the Western Slope, Palisade residents nervously awaited the freeze they knew was coming. That morning, when the sun peeked over the mountains and warmed the orchards, the farmers knew the damage was done.
“Weather service told us it was coming. I was skeptical––I hoped they were wrong. They weren’t,” said Bruce Talbott, owner of the largest peach farm in Palisade.
Though the novel coronavirus had not halted most aspects of everyday life in Palisade, farmers were left reeling from a 19-degree freeze that, according to the Farm Bureau, killed an estimated 90% of the area's crops. While they knew the pandemic would cause difficulties later down the line, the freeze left farmers with the unexpected problem of deciding what would come next for their workers.
The response to COVID-19 has created a shortage of H-2A workers across the country. Though the U.S. is still allowing guestworkers to travel for work, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have tightened the requirements of who can receive an H-2A visa. According to Kim Noland, an H-2A agent for most of Palisade’s growers, only workers who have previously held an H-2A visa are allowed to work. The USCIS declined to comment on the subject.
The H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, or guestworker program, allows employers to bring in foreign workers for seasonal jobs. Palisade hosted 397 H-2A workers in 2019. Talbott currently employs 42 H-2A workers, the most in Palisade. However, the freeze has left Talbott with no need for his workers and with few choices of where to send them.
Talbott, along with other peach growers, such as Brant Harrison, opted to transfer his workers to other farms outside of the Palisade area. However, he fears that he might lose his workers to other employers for future years.
“We’ve spent years building up the crews," he said. "It’s really sad to not be able to have them stay with us for this season."
Talbott’s and Harrison’s workers rely on them for many needs. H-2A employers are required to house their guestworkers at no cost. Employers also must provide three meals a day, or cooking facilities within the provided housing along with any needed transportation.
Noland, who manages most of Palisade’s guestworkers, also owns 100 acres of peaches. Before the damaging freeze, she was concerned about maintaining social distancing amongst her employees during harvest.
“Once they get into the packing shed it’s very difficult to stay six feet apart,” Noland said.
H-2A workers make up 2 to 5% of the U.S. farm labor force, according to Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for migrant worker’s rights. The H-2A program is also essential to the worker’s income. Though pay differs between employers, Noland estimates her guestworkers make 1,280% more each day at Palisade farms than they would back home in Central America, where a majority of the workers live.
Harrison first hired H-2A workers in 2019 and quickly found the group to be more reliable. The organic peach farmer refers to his experience as “a breath of fresh air” after cutting his turnover rate in half from the year before.
“This year is bad, but it isn’t something we haven’t been through before,” said Harrison, who has 40 years of orchard experience.
Harrison experienced a winter freeze early on in his farming career in 1989, he said. He later went organic in 1991, becoming the only organic peach provider in Palisade at the time. The last time the area experienced a freeze as destructive as this year's was in 1999, when most grower’s crops froze.
“I’m as disappointed as my customers. [Peaches are] one of those foods that’s enjoyable to eat and I enjoy giving people that pleasure,” Harrison said.
The Colorado Farm Bureau has reached out to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to designate Palisade as a disaster area according to Taylor Szilagyi, director of policy communications for the Bureau. Although it is not clear when the USDA will make a decision, designating Palisade a disaster area could give peach farmers aid, such as access to the USDA WHIP Plus program. The WHIP Plus program could potentially provide financial assistance to the farmers who lost their main source of income for the year.
While growers make decisions about where to send their H-2A workers and patiently await the USDA’s decision, there is still hope for the future of the essential industry.
“Agriculture is here, we’re gonna continue to grow food and make sure everybody has what they need to eat,” Szilagyi said.