U.S. farmers are "gonna be in trouble" without foreign labor during the coronavirus pandemic

Farmers struggle with virus' effect on labor

Last Updated Apr 3, 2020 12:55 PM EDT

While the spring harvest season is here in America, CBS News spoke to farmers who say there aren't enough workers. Foreign labor, mostly migrant workers, filled more than a quarter-million agriculture jobs in the U.S. last year, but this spring, there is a potential labor shortage amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"This coronavirus has got everybody so stirred up," Georgia farmer Bill Brim told CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

Worrying about his farm keeps him up at night. "I sleep about two and a half, three hours a night," he said.

Seasonal foreign labor, mainly from Mexico, always harvests Brim's crops, but this spring, he could be 200 workers short. The coronavirus crisis has delayed the U.S. government's processing of their work visas.

Brim is facing a series of harvest deadlines. The first one is April 15 for squash. May 1, it's cucumbers, and he better have his pickers in place, he said.

"When we start harvesting squash, we've got just days to pick it," Brim said. "So if our workers don't show up here on time, then we're gonna be in trouble."

Seventy miles away, Jeremy White is in bigger trouble. His blueberry crop is days away from harvest. He needs 100 pickers and packers, but they're stuck in Guatemala, where the borders are sealed because of the virus. 

"We need 'em now. Absolutely, we need 'em now," White said. "As you can see, this fruit's turning blue and it's not waiting on anybody."

More than $1 million worth of blueberries could rot in the fields, he said, and he has no plan B.

"Domestic labor just don't want to do this kind of work. It's unfortunate to say, but they just don't want to get out and do hard field labor anymore," White said.

Georgia's commissioner of agriculture Gary Black echoed the farmers' concerns. 

"It is a reality. If there are not workers, there will be crops that will go unharvested, and that has a ripple effect throughout this economy, and it will affect the consumers of this nation," he said.

Brim also has worries beyond his labor shortage, including if the workers he does have get sick and who will buy the crops they can harvest. Restaurants usually buy 60% of his crops, but not this year with so many closed.

If things don't turn around, Brim said, "It could devastate us. It could put us out of business, really."

He's owned the farm for 35 years and hopes this won't be the last. 

"We hope and pray it's not. We're hoping this coronavirus will get out of here and we can go back to a little bit of normalcy," he said.

Agriculture workers are considered essential, and the U.S. State Department is trying to clear the way for more workers to enter the country by waiving some requirements like in-person interviews.