Heading southeast from Columbus to the Ohio River there are more than 20 Witten Farm Markets dotting the landscape. The Wittens are known for selling a lot of produce – tomatoes, melons, strawberries and even flowers – but fresh-from-the-cornstalk sweet corn is their specialty.
They claim to have the earliest sweet corn harvest in the state and are proud that ears picked from their fields under spotlights at 2 a.m. will be sold at one of those produce markets when it opens later that same morning.
“We had maybe 12 or 14 farm markets six years ago,” said co-owner Scott Witten, who runs the produce farm with his brother, Tom, and sister, Julie. “Now we have 22.”
While hard work and planning spurred the growth of the Witten Farm Markets, equally as important has been an investment in a sustainable workforce.
When Scott came back to work on the family farm after completing college in 2008, one of the single biggest challenges the siblings faced was hiring enough dependable workers to get their product to market.
“We struggled,” Scott said. “We were really wondering if we were going to get our crops off.”
Tom agreed that the struggle was real, noting that in the last five years only two people have interviewed for the 40 open seasonal positions, making hiring enough local labor impossible.
Finding willing and quality laborers is not a new problem for farmers in Ohio or nationally, often times creating an ongoing anxiety for farmers from one season to the next.
Six years ago the Wittens made the decision to participate in H-2A, a federal government program that pairs legal, foreign workers with seasonal jobs in agriculture (see sidebar). The workers are not immigrants. They are issued visas and are hired to work for a specific farmer in the United States for up to 10 months and then return back to their homes.
The H-2A program is far from perfect. Participating in the program is expensive and comes with significant red tape. Many farms struggle with the bureaucracy and long waits for employees after they are needed for the growing season. Both Tom and Scott say that if there wasn’t a retail component to their farm they probably wouldn’t be able to afford it, but they also agree it is worth the investment. They just wish it was easier to use so it didn’t require the need for a consultant.
“We have 40 guys right now and the least experienced guy (has been here) four years,” Scott said. “There’s no question at all” that the extra help has helped the Witten farm grow. “By years two and three those guys are making up for that (upfront cost).”
At the Witten family farm, many of the men in the program have been working with the family for years. They now live and work on the farm roughly five months of the year at different times, depending on the planting and harvesting schedules. In the off-season they head back to their homes, many of which are in close proximity to each other in El Salvador.
“The best reward is working with people who have the same goals as we do,” Tom said. “I can trust these guys to make the business grow.”
A solid business does have a positive impact on the paychecks the workers take home. “They care for our business as much as we do,” Tom said. “They are in the crop, they are in the fields and we work with our employees and grow the farm together. Due to the growth of our business, we have grown from a 20-person crew to a 40-person crew. Most of our current crew are family and friends of the original 20-person crew.”
Creating a good environment has made the program work better for the Wittens.
It’s that family connection, both literally and figuratively, that has been an important one both back home and in Ohio. Both the Wittens and the men who work for them admit that despite a bit of a language barrier, they have become like an extended family as they’ve worked closely together over the years.
“When you work 16-hour days with them consistently, you have a professional relationship, but they become your friends,” Tom said. “They talk about home. It’s a common misconception that they want to come here and stay. They’re leaving behind their family and they like where they live.”
“This year Tom said ‘I’m buying the tickets and we’re going,’” Scott said, with a laugh. So the brothers took a trip to El Salvador to meet the workers’ families and see what the fruits of their labor have accomplished back home.
Tom said it was a culture shock, and the country can be a dangerous place to visit. The guys made sure Tom and Scott were protected while they were there, just as they make sure their own families are protected while they are away working.
Items as modest as new septic systems and as necessary as new homes for family members were just a couple of the examples of success because of their employment on the Witten farm. The fact that his bosses came to visit him at home meant a lot to crew boss Carlos Franco, who has worked with the Wittens six years, and to his family.
“Very seldom do you hear of company owners going out of their way to visit with company workers,” he said, through interpreter Norman Romero, another Witten employee. “We’re living amongst each other. We have a tight bond and there are feelings and trust there.”
While the Wittens are grateful for the reliable workers, their employees are equally grateful for the reliable work as well as the people who sign their paychecks.
“We love the way we get treated here,” said Miguel “Smiley” Cisneros, who has been working with them for five years. “I never imagined to have this opportunity to come here and to work. It’s beneficial on both sides. That’s why I keep coming. I’m grateful.”
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Top, from left, Scott Witten jokes around while working in the field with his worker crew from El Salvador at the Witten farm in Washington County. The Witten family, center, known for its sweet corn, strawberries and flowers, right, struggled to hire skilled workers before deciding to invest in the H-2A federal worker visa program in 2010.
Working for You
Red tape can slow down H-2A process just when farmers need the help most
The H-2A program is the only legal, nonimmigrant foreign worker visa program for agricultural employers in the United States. Worker visas are issued strictly for temporary, seasonal work in the industry. For farmers, it is a tool that can be used to establish a “capable, reliable and legal” workforce, said Kerry Scott, project manager for MASLabor, the leading H-2A services provider in the country. Scott is the agent who takes care of the H-2A details for the Wittens. The fact that the H-2A program requires an agent to navigate its regulations speaks to the complexity that Farm Bureau is working to simplify. In May, Farm Bureau officials were encouraged when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the State Department launched a new online approval platform with hopes that it will expedite H-2A processing.
There are several requirements that potential employers must meet to be a participant in the program, Scott said. Farmers are required through the program to attempt to find local labor for their seasonal positions by first advertising their job openings. They must furnish the living arrangements and pay for transportation costs of their H-2A workers. They are required to have workers’ compensation insurance and pay all workers at the U.S. Department of Labor Adverse Effect Wage Rate or the prevailing wage rate in the state, whichever is higher.
The process can be “complicated and has become very bureaucratic,” he said, which is where his company comes in to help navigate all the paperwork. “We answer to three federal agencies, the Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.”
Video footage originated from American Farm Bureau Federation. View complete AFBF story here.
Here is the Witten’s advice on simple sweet corn prep.
For more about Witten Farm Market and its sweet corn, visit wittenfarm.com.