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Updated: 10/25/2013 01:19:01AM

Fruit growers say government shutdown may leave crops unpicked

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Jim Efstathiou Jr. and Marvin Perez

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NEW YORK (Bloomberg) — U.S. fruit and vegetable growers say delays in processing visa applications during the government shutdown has left them so short of immigrant workers that crops may be lost if the process isn’t expedited.

The 16-day shutdown that ended Oct. 17 has delayed the arrival of temporary workers needed to harvest Florida’s citrus crop, said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“The damage has been done by the shutdown and now it’s a matter of whether the agencies are going to respond to the time- sensitive nature of the H2-A applications,” Carlton said in an interview. “I don’t think there’s been enough time to really know the answer to that.”

The H2-A visa program allows itinerant workers into the U.S. to work on farms. About 65,000 farmworkers received visas last year, mostly from Mexico. Unlike the program for technology workers, there’s no cap on the number of visas for farmworkers. The House and Senate have proposed limitations on the H2-A visas in pending bills.

In a letter to the heads of the Labor, State and Homeland Security departments, 24 House members warned Oct. 18 of potentially “disastrous consequences” for growers and consumers if the visas are not processed quickly.

The DHS said Oct. 23 it would temporarily accept copies of visa applications from the Labor Department instead of applications with original signatures.

“The accommodation is allowing the process to start with a facsimile,” Christopher Bentley, a spokesman with the DHS, said in an interview.

Measures taken by government agencies so far to speed H2-A seasonal visas will shave only one day from the process, which typically takes about two months, Carlton said.

A spokesperson at the Labor Department was not immediately available to comment.

“We’re not in crisis yet but the window is getting closer and closer,” Andrew Meadows, director of communications at Florida Citrus Mutual, the top U.S. grower organization, said in a phone interview. “We lost 16 days during the government shutdown at a critical time when growers get approval for temporary guest-worker visas.”

The visa process begins at the Department of Labor, which certifies whether foreign workers are actually needed. If the department agrees, the application is sent to DHS.

The process must begin in late September for workers to be in place Nov. 1, the start of the Florida citrus harvest. During the shutdown, which ended Oct. 17 no applications were processed by the Labor Department.

Applications for almost 8,000 workers submitted by growers in Florida were frozen during the shutdown, according to Carlton. Florida’s citrus crop was worth about $1.1 billion in the 2010-2011 season.

Out of 16,000 workers needed during the harvest, the state typically brings 8,000 to 10,000 guest workers to help collect the crops, which in the year ended Sept. 30 yielded 133.4 million boxes, according to the most recent estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meadows estimated that about 90 percent of the needed visas have not been approved.

The Florida citrus industry creates a $9 billion annual economic impact, employing nearly 76,000 people, and covering about 550,000 acres, according to information on the group’s website.

“The harvest has started a little in the state but won’t ramp up until early November,” Meadows said.

The visa delays come at a time when Florida farmers also tackle declining output after a fungal disease that threatens to curb output. Citrus consultant Elizabeth Steger said in August that in the season started Oct. 1, production may drop to 130 million boxes, each weighing 90 pounds, or 41 kilograms.

The partial government closure, which took place as Republicans and Democrats clashed over passing a budget and lifting the nation’s borrowing limit, was resolved last week when President Barack Obama signed legislation opening the government until Jan. 15 and suspending the debt ceiling through Feb. 7. Congress is attempting to reach a budget deal by Dec. 13.