(Adds comment from Florida blueberry harvester)
By Daniel Becerril and Christopher Walljasper
MONTERREY/CHICAGO, March 30 (Reuters) - It's watermelon season in Florida. But as the top U.S. watermelon-producing state prepares for harvest, many of the workers needed to collect the crop are stuck in Mexico, unable to secure visas.
Restricted visa services, quickly evolving regulations and increased border controls risk wider labor shortages in the United States produce industry that may leave grocery stores scrambling for fruits and vegetables as spring and summer harvests spread across the United States.
On Thursday, more than 100 workers waited in a stifling park in the center of Monterrey, Mexico, backpacks and rolling suitcases in hand, for news about their H-2A temporary agriculture worker visas.
They had traveled from all over Mexico, aiming to secure work picking fruits and vegetables and manicuring lawns in Florida, Texas, Tennessee and beyond.
Around a third of the men had traveled overnight on a bus from Guanajuato after the Florida-based company Pequeño Harvesting called recruiter Javier Lara with an urgent need for workers for the watermelon harvest, only to turn back home.
"We got screwed," complained Lara. "The watermelons will rot in the fields."
That afternoon, Lara and his recruits boarded the bus for the nine-hour ride back amid confusion over U.S. policy.
A rapidly spreading coronavirus drove the U.S. State Department to halt routine visa applications at embassies and consulates around the world starting March 18.
Produce companies, who counted on 243,000 H-2A workers to harvest crops in 2018, immediately lobbied the government for exemptions for agriculture workers.
On Wednesday, State Department officials said they had waived in-person interview requirements for many H-2A applicants.
A spokesman at the U.S. consulate in Monterrey said on Sunday a limited staff was continuing to process the H-2A visas "due to the high priority of maintaining the U.S. food supply chain." He said the consulate had taken measures to ensure there were not groups of visa applicants at the consulate, however.
Pequeño Harvesting hired more than 855 H-2A workers in 2019, more than any other company harvesting watermelons in Florida, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. The company could not be reached for comment.
Florida produced more than 780 million pounds of watermelon last year – 22% of U.S. consumption, according to the state government. In 2018, the state brought in 30,462 H-2A workers, second only to Georgia, according the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Without the workers crops could rot in fields throughout the country. U.S. citizens have not harvested fruits and vegetables for decades, and grain harvests are mostly automated.
In Florida, blueberries, cantaloupe, carrots, cucumbers, mangoes, peaches and watermelon are nearing harvest in April and May, while California is preparing to harvest grapes, raspberries, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, peaches, plums, nectarines, cantaloupe and watermelons.
'TOO MUCH WORK'
As other crops ripen, the labor shortage will begin to be felt in U.S. grocery stores, said Dannia Sanchez, president of Florida-based D & J and Sons Harvesting, Inc, who contracts H-2A workers for citrus, blueberries and asparagus harvesting in Florida, Georgia and Michigan.
"If they're not picked in time, they're going to go bad. The little we do pick, they're going to raise the price of that, because there's not as much."
Sanchez said she was already short some 250 workers and had been unable to get paperwork approved to bring more in. She has workers doubling up on shifts in Florida, picking oranges in the morning and blueberries in the afternoon.
"There's going to be a time when I can't handle it anymore, because it's too much work," she said.
Some applicants in Lara's group in Mexico had already spent seasons laboring in U.S. fields.
"This is the first time I haven't been allowed to go," said 32-year-old Jorge Luis Tapia Ramirez, a father of two who has worked three previous seasons in the United States.
As confusion reigns about the new visa rules and the coronavirus also spreads in Mexico, fewer workers are arriving in Monterrey, 200 kilometers from the U.S. border and traditionally a gateway for H-2A visas.
"There should be two or three times more people passing through here, at a minimum," said Paulino Chavez, a vendor who has spent years peddling wallets, passport holders, fanny packs and belts to north-bound farmworkers. (Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Caroline Stauffer, Frank Jack Daniel, Diane Craft and Richard Chang)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.