GRANADA, MINN. – After years of struggling to hire and retain local workers, Hugoson Pork turned last year to Mexico to help staff its hog barns.

The business in southern Minnesota now employs 18 Mexican nationals through the trade national visa program, which is open to Mexican and Canadian citizens with professional training.

“It’s been a huge blessing for us,” said Angie Toothaker, the fifth-generation farmer who runs Hugoson Pork with her parents, brother and husband.

She said she would hire six more workers on TN visas today if she could. But she can’t.

Approval of the visas, which was already limited, has slowed to a trickle in a pandemic that has restricted borders and shut down embassies.

But in rural Minnesota, hog and dairy farmers are clamoring for expansion of the TN visa program, arguing they and others in agriculture need the workers and can’t find them nearby.

The strain is likely to grow as rural counties throughout Minnesota and neighboring states lose population in coming years. To find workers, farmers hope to shift the immigration debate in the country.

“People think they’re going to take all the jobs from other people, and that’s just not the case,” said Kevin Hugoson, Toothaker’s father who took over the hog farm from his father in the 1980s. “We need the labor.”

The TN visa program has grown in recent years but the State Department still only issued 21,293 of them in the government’s 2019 fiscal year, the vast majority for Mexican nationals. The State Department declined to release state-specific data.

COVID-19 brought approval of TN visas almost to a halt. Only 314 were issued from April 1 to July 31.

There also is some uncertainty about the future of the program since it was part of NAFTA, a trade deal that was renegotiated as the United States-Mexico-Canada trade deal.

The embassy in Mexico City is only taking emergency appointments now, and farms who want to bring in workers must get special waivers for visas to get approval.

“We had four TNs that we had interviewed, offered a job to and they had all accepted between January and February,” Toothaker said. “They were on hold until we just got them in the last couple of weeks. We had to apply for an emergency visa, and prove that the impact of not getting them was impacting our production, and it absolutely was.”

Labor needed

Hugoson Pork employs about 75 people and raises just over 300,000 hogs per year.

The farm’s three large sow barns are finely tuned operations. Concerns over biosecurity — a lethal airborne hog virus known as PRRS that emerged in the 1980s is still an acute threat — mean all employees and visitors must shower and put on sanitized clothing before they enter the barn. The farm spends thousands of dollars a year on air filters.

And the piglets often need immediate attention. They must be dried off and warmed up. Heat lamps need to be repaired. Sometimes the runts need help getting to a sow’s udder for milk.

When people don’t show up for work, or don’t pay attention to detail, piglet mortality starts to tick upward. Meanwhile, it’s costly to hire and train someone only for them to quit the job after a couple of months.

Toothaker, who is 34, said she is running local advertisements to try to hire people for jobs that have a starting wage of $14 per hour and benefits. But interest is low, demand for reliable farmworkers is high in a region where hog production is concentrated, and nine out of 10 local hires quickly quit.

“Our No. 1 issue with local hires is attendance — hands down,” Toothaker said.

In recent months, Hugoson Pork has been short-staffed by about 10%.

Large dairy farmers also need reliable workers and are using TN visas, most notably Riverview Dairy LLP in western Minnesota, said Lucas Sjostrom, director of Minnesota Milk, a statewide trade group.

“We’ve been arguing for expansion of a better workforce for 20 years,” Sjostrom said.

Dairies, like hog farms, need year-round workers and it doesn’t make sense for them to bring people in on a seasonal visa.

“There’s lots of seasonal visas, but TNs are pretty much the only things we can use,” Sjostrom said. “So it would be great if it’s expanded.”

More would use visas if available

Kenji San Luis, 28, got his visa a year ago and has been working for Hugoson Pork since.

A native of Juarez who studied veterinary science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, San Luis saw an offer for the job on Facebook and applied. With Hugoson’s sponsorship, he received his visa. He now lives in housing provided at a “nominal rate” by Hugoson.

He said the food, the language and the weather have been an adjustment for him, but he values the work and he sends money to his mother in Mexico City.

“One of my goals is to come here and learn about the pork industry,” he said.

Eventually he would like to go back to Mexico, get his master’s degree, and teach swine production at a university.

Josue Ramirez, 35, has the title of director of cultural integration at Hugoson. He’s learned to be fluent in English and one of his jobs is to help other Mexican workers get comfortable in the U.S.

A native of Monterrey, in northern Mexico, he earned an animal science degree at Universidad de Nuevo Leon in Monterrey and worked at other big farms in the U.S. on temporary visas before he started at Hugoson Pork.

His family is now here, including his 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, and they live in Madelia, Minn.

“I will buy a house soon,” Ramirez said. “One of my goals is for my kids to go to college here.”

Ramirez and San Luis said they make about five times as much as they would in Mexico doing the same work.

Both said they have friends from college in Mexico who would jump at the chance to take a farm job in the U.S.