116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — For one small group of farmworkers, the war against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being fought in local fruit orchards about 5,000 miles away from their home.
At Wilson’s Orchard & Farm, the group of seven farmworkers are among the first Johnson County residents approved for Uniting for Ukraine, a new federal program that provides a pathway to the United States. Now, the workers who previously worked in Iowa under H-2A visas for temporary agriculture workers are starting to bring their families to Iowa.
“What these guys are doing now is quite literally instrumental to supporting their country,” said Jacob Goering, general manager of Wilson’s Farm & Orchard.
With Ukraine’s economy being strangled by Russian control, one key to the country’s defense is robust economic support — something these workers are procuring outside the country.
“The choice was for me to go back to Ukraine, or bring (my family) here. If I’m going to Ukraine, I’ll just be waiting until the time I’m taken to the front (lines),” said Yuri Hod, who has been working at Wilson’s since 2017.
With no military skills, he said it’s more useful for his family to stay in Iowa, where they can earn a stable income to send aid back to family and support funds in Ukraine. Hod and his family — along with his six Ukrainian co-workers and their families — applied for Uniting for Ukraine as soon as applications opened and were approved within two weeks.
Under the program, Ukrainians who secure a private sponsor can live in the United States for up to two years. Sponsors act as financial guarantors for applicants.
Wilson’s started hiring the group of Ukrainians in 2017 after the farm encountered pronounced difficulty in finding local workers to harvest crops. The group of four in 2017 has grown into a team of seven now, with plans to hire even more as the farm continues to grow and diversify its crops.
Through the H-2A visa program, workers would be flown in, provided with housing and competitive wages while they worked, and flown back home to Ukraine after about eight months. But this year, that plan didn’t look as feasible.
Hod, who owned a tourism company near Drohobych, a city in western Ukraine, remembers how, in 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. The economic impacts were felt instantly.
As Hod found better work in Iowa, his wife and son continued to live in Ukraine. Hod’s wife, Olga, managed a grocery store and organized food drives. Their family hosted displaced refugees from eastern Ukraine to live in every spare inch of their home.
Though Hod and his co-workers now spend their time in the peaceful fields away from ever-present bombing threats since Russia’s invasion in February, the choice to stay in Iowa has been difficult. Hod’s family, entrenched in the effort to defend their country, weren’t enthusiastic about leaving — even with everything going on in Ukraine this year.
“It was a little bit hard to convince them,” Hod said.
After receiving approval through Uniting for Ukraine, Wilson’s Orchard & Farm has started to move the families of their farmworkers to Iowa City. With mounting moving expenses, the farm has started a GoFundMe page.
About 35 miles from the border with Poland, western Ukraine has not seen the same level of violence and destruction wrought on southern and eastern Ukraine. Though the danger of missiles is constant, some in western Ukraine feel insulated from the graphic danger shown in news reports.
There, many have become desensitized to constant missile alerts on their phones and emergency alarm systems, accepting the risk of leaving their bunkers to do simple daily tasks.
“Everybody knows (a missile) is coming, but nobody knows where (it will land,)” Hod said.
With protected status for the farmworkers and their families, envisioning where they will go after two years is difficult, as circumstances change daily. Hod and his team are unable to say for sure where they see themselves after that.
“The main goal was to stay here as long as possible to help everybody. It’s hard for me to (say) right now,” he said. “I want to be everywhere. … Everything is mixed inside.”
The workers who have been instrumental to the farm’s success over the last five years are objectively overqualified candidates for the work they do. With relatively strong English skills and college degrees, they do backbreaking work over long hours that fewer Americans are willing to do.
But they continue to stay because of the family atmosphere the farm has fostered, Hod said. The farm has found unusual continuity with this group of workers — it’s not normal for most H-2A workers to work at the same place every single year, according to Goering.
“Me and my wife were a little worried. What type of guys were these — we never met them — that were going to be living 5 feet away from us?” said orchard manager Kyle Tester in a video produced by Wilson’s. “It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to us.”
That compatibility may be due in part to the nature of Ukraine. With a rich soil and a hard work ethic, Goering and Hod liken Ukraine to being the Iowa of Europe.
Hod and his colleagues were business owners, teachers, sales managers and information technology experts before they started working on the farm. But with farm upbringings in small villages, the change of careers wasn’t much of a shock, Hod said.
“Right now, they could probably prune with their eyes closed,” Goering said.
When their two years are up, he remains confident that the government will do right by the families that have become integral to the success of farms like theirs. He believes workers like theirs have a strong case to be made for more permanent immigration options, should they want to stay.
While the Ukrainian team doesn’t know what their future holds in two years, Goering believes more permanent solutions will be developed — even as other displaced populations like Afghans have faced difficulties securing more permanent residency options.
“Right now, there are more Ukrainian flags up (here) than we have in Ukraine, usually,” Hod said.
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