Tal Coley

Nursery Management: Should growers expect much of the same labor shortages in 2020 that they've experienced in recent years?

Tal Coley: Unfortunately, I think so. But there’s efforts to alleviate some of those problems, both on the legislative and regulatory side. But I can't say or emphasize this enough — it's just a very, very hard environment to operate in right now between the politics of the day, as well as the the looming elections in 2020. When you have those as a backstop on trying to get solutions, it makes it very difficult. But I don't think it's going to get any worse. Do I think it's going to get any better? I don't know right now because it's all very uncertain. We will have to see.

NM: What's on the horizon for the H-2A and H-2B programs?

TC: For H-2A, the administration has been [making] improvements on the plan through [Secretary of Agriculture] Sonny Purdue. It’s been about three steps. They reduced paperwork, created a website that was much more user-friendly for the H-2A program, and they've just released a set of new proposals in the last month or two that were pretty extensive and are still going through the regulatory process. Legislatively, they are trying to put a plan out there on the House side, which has been ongoing for quite some time now. It’s a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House that are trying to get a solution for H-2A and make improvements on the program. What is in that? They keep it tight to the vest. I know it's getting down to critical mass now and they're going to either be releasing it or saying, ‘You know, we just couldn't come to an agreement.’ The good news is that there is some action on H-2A at the agency level. For H-2B, they got extra visas last year. We’re trying to get that again and to continue that increase. It's always a year-to-year thing. With all these appropriation bills, it does give an opportunity to get some language in there and to get more H-2B workers in the system. Unfortunately, H-2B has a cap, whereas H-2A does not. You’re always up against that cap and it’s never enough on that regard … I feel a little more hopeful with the H-2B. There seems to be a very wide swath of bipartisan support on trying to get a solution there … Is it the silver bullet solution that everybody wants and everybody's looking forward? No, but there are some gains that have been made, just no touchdowns as of yet.

NM: Is it fair to say horticulture and agriculture have a labor crisis?

TC: I would say yes. When we do town halls and engagements at state association trade shows as well as out in D.C., the first issue that comes up with anybody that I have encountered on the grower side is always labor. It's always at the front of everybody's mind. Unfortunately, it's been in the front of everybody's mind for so long and it's been an issue at hand for a long time … So yes, I would say it would be at a crisis level for some, especially depending on what area you're in.

NM: Is there any legislation in the works to help ease the labor situation?

TC: I think the effort on the House side is probably the one that’s pretty paramount right now. Obviously, they have to all agree to the components of it … but if it does pass the House, the question becomes, ‘Will the Senate take it up or will the Senate build their own plan?’ We really don’t know at this point … There will be some efforts in regard to H-2B going forward with some of the appropriations bills however … We’ll just have to wait and see, at this point.

NM: What are some solutions growers might use to hire more/new employees?

TC: That is a very good question … I do know in our industry, especially on the nursery side, a lot of folks are turning to the H-2A program. Yes, there's some costs associated up front, but you do get the help that you need. Whereas, if you aren't in the H-2A program, then it’s a crap shoot … We have a lot of people turning to H-2A these days, whereas, maybe 10, 15 years ago, not so much.

NM: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

TC: I know it’s a lot of speculation, but that’s the nature of this issue. The good news is that we’ve got bipartisan support on a lot of these efforts, whereas, some other issues that are in front of Congress, not so much. That’s what gives me hope, that eventually, there will be a solution out there.

For more: www.AmericanHort.org