By Marlee Moore
Phillip and Will Hunter hired a dozen local laborers to supplement staff on their wholesale tree nursery in 2020.
“Not a single one works here now,” said Phillip, who serves on the Alabama Farmers Federation state board. “We sell a high-quality, high-end product. Our quality was suffering because we didn’t have workers.”
After a year of planning, preparation and paperwork, Hunter Trees in Alpine welcomed 16 H-2A laborers in January 2022. The legal temporary agricultural workers will stay through November.
One year into the program, the brothers agree: H-2A’s immediate impact is worth the expense.
“We knew within days we had made the right decision,” Phillip said. “H-2A is great across all commodities because if you just need one or two guys, you can get that. These guys are proud of their work, and they want to do a good job.”
Some farmers manage mountains of compliance paperwork and logistics in-house, but the Hunters turned to seasonal labor management company AgWorks to facilitate the detail-driven program.
“The H-2A program changes often, and the nuances make or break you,” said Dan Bremer, president of Georgia-based AgWorks. “Eventually, you will be audited by the U.S. Department of Labor, and they expect you to do things right.”
Bremer said employers, who are still required to advertise locally, have trended toward H-2A labor for manual tasks as the domestic labor pool shrinks. Alabama’s unemployment hit a record low of 2.6% in July, according to the Department of Labor.
Step by step, Bremer and his AgWorks associates sweat the small stuff for clients, from nailing down a worker time frame to troubleshooting issues. H-2A supplies agricultural workers, while the similar H-2B program is for nonagricultural labor.
Specialists pinpoint skill levels and work with international facilitators to secure qualified laborers, who are thoroughly vetted via background checks before coming to the U.S.
Hunter Trees prioritized cultural work, such as pruning, staking and planting trees, for its 300-acre nursery.
The peace of mind, resources and personalized service AgWorks provides makes the investment an easy repeat decision, Phillip said.
H-2A employers encounter extensive requirements for seasonal laborers from three federal agencies — the U.S. Department of Labor, Homeland Security and the Department of State. This includes housing specifications, transportation for weekly grocery store trips and paying the adverse effect wage rate ($11.99 in Alabama in 2022), plus providing bathroom and clean water facilities every quarter mile in the field.
The Hunters built a spacious, energy-efficient four-bedroom, four-bathroom dormitory-style house with a shared living and kitchen area steps away from the nursery’s central hub. AgWorks provided housing recommendations to meet legal requirements.
The house includes two sets of bunk beds per room; individual lockers; a porch; and multiple washing machines, dryers, cooking ranges and refrigerators.
“We could have used house trailers, but the market made it really expensive,” Phillip said. “In for a penny, in for a pound. It was important for the workers to know they are appreciated and for us to build something we know will be here.”
Once the H-2A workers arrived in Talladega County, they were split into crews comprised of and led by long-time farm help (the nursery has about 40 staff total). The approach created bonds, quickly taught skills and helped complete tasks more efficiently.
Shouts of “buenos dias” and laughter echoed across the nursery as Phillip made the rounds one steamy summer morning and reflected on delving into H-2A.
“We want to be a good, local employer and provide employment and a better opportunity to make a living here,” he said. “We are proud of all our employees, but we need more help than we can access locally. Despite the hurdles for both us and the workers, we are so pleased these guys were excited to get here and enthusiastic about working. I wish we’d done it years earlier.”