Mar 18, 2011
J1 Visas offer alternative labor source

Finding quality labor is an issue most growers must deal with. Many fruit and vegetable growers are aware of the H-2A visa program that allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the country to fill temporary agricultural jobs for which domestic workers are not available. These same growers are also aware of the obstacles associated with the H-2A system. There is an alternative for some workers, however, with the J1 Visa system.

Few growers are taking advantage of the Exchange Visitor J1 Visa program, which enables experienced interns and trainees to be placed on U.S. farms and agricultural operations. There are some striking differences between J1 and H-2A, however, and the J1 Visa is not an option that will work for everyone.

“The J1 Visa program is a training program,” said Bob Jones Jr. of The Chef’s Garden Farm in Ohio. “It shouldn’t be looked at as a source of labor, but more of as an educational program where you’ll get an exchange of ideas.”

A key difference of the J1 program is the education, or experience, requirement. The intent is that the workers would arrive with a higher-than-average level of experience, gain additional training, share their knowledge with the host farm and return to their home country to further their agricultural career and improve their community. Two types of J1 visas are allowed for agricultural workers: trainees and interns.

A trainee must be a foreign national who has a degree or professional certificate from a foreign, post-secondary academic institution, and at least one year of prior work experience in his or her occupational field. Five years of work experience outside the United States in the occupational field in which he or she is seeking training also qualifies.

An intern, on the other hand, must be a foreign national who is studying at a foreign post-secondary academic institution outside the United States, or has graduated from such an institution no more than 12 months prior to his or her program start date. The intern must have a minimum of one year of prior work experience in his or her occupational field.

Growers who participate in the program see benefits aside from having experienced help.

“They come with some technical knowledge, but are open for us to teach our methods,” said Glenn Cook of Cider Hill Farms in Massachusetts. “They are seasonal, which is often very hard to find from our local population, and they will work more than a local person because they have fewer distractions and commitments and realize they are here to work, to make money, to learn English and to experience American culture.”

Trainees and interns are allowed to work in the United States for up to 12 months.

Jones has worked with the J1 program for 15 years, and brings in an average of 10 student trainees each year. Cook has been involved for more than 25 years, and currently hosts six student trainees. Each of them highly recommends the system.

“I have strongly recommended it to many farmers over the years,” Cook said. “We have been involved ourselves for about 25 years, and first learned of it through another farmer. Many of these interns return home to establish very impressive farm operations.

We have no plans to change this important part of our farm culture. We have thoroughly enjoyed this part of our farm life, and we have friends around the world now.”

The Communicating for Agriculture Scholarship and Education Foundation (CAF) acts as an exchange sponsor for the J1 program. CAF sets up internships and training opportunities through its administering organization CA Education Programs (CAEP). CAEP has created training opportunities for more than 20,000 young adults
CAEP has placed J1 interns and trainees in fruit and vegetable businesses around the country, from small family farms to larger operations.

“We match qualified interns and trainees based on the needs of the host farm or operation,” said Craig Schmuck, CAEP coordinator. “The program provides the vocational component to agricultural education for the participant, and hosts often learn as much from them.”

As the sponsoring organization, CAEP facilitates the entry of the trainees into the United States as exchange visitors and ensures completion of the necessary paperwork and program objectives set by the U.S. State Department. By handling the visa logistics, travel arrangements, pre-arrival training and technical support, CAEP makes it easier for host farms looking for J1 placements in agriculture.

“I’m very happy to be involved with the program,” Jones said. “The best advice I can give is to be flexible. Sometimes you have to make adjustments in how a farm is run to make the trainee more involved, and sometime you have to make adjustments for the ethnic diversity as well. The trainees are coming to learn about American agriculture and the English language. It’s not a quick fix for cheap labor, but a commitment to education. It is truly a great program.”

To find out more about hosting an intern or trainee, call CAEP at 866-560-1657, e-mail Craig Schmuck at [email protected] or visit www.caep.org.

By Derrek Sigler


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