By Roy Roberson, Southeast Farm Press
Tobacco acreage is holding its own in North Carolina, as are sweet potatoes and vegetable and fruit crops.
The labor needed to harvest these crops is not keeping pace and the problem is likely to get worse, unless changes are made in temporary worker program and politics.
Agriculture is the biggest cog in NC’s economic machine, doubling the dollar value of its two closest rivals: Military and tourism. To continue building on the $74 billion industry, agriculture leaders contend a viable labor supply is a must.
Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler says the diversity in the state’s agricultural crops is a blessing, but can be a curse when adequate labor is not available to harvest crops. “No grower is going to plant a crop without some assurance that he or she will have labor to harvest it,” Troxler says.
Without question, the state’s nine percent unemployment rate should insure an adequate supply of labor, but it doesn’t. The problem is not endemic to NC, states across the Southeast face similar labor shortages.
Fortunately, NC did not pass the same ultra-restrictive labor laws that their neighbors to the south passed. Despite more liberal laws, the politics of labor are still restrictive, time consuming and expensive.
“North Carolina has a strong guest worker visa program, and its immigration laws are not as strict as some nearby states. The farm labor shortage is affecting each state differently,” says Kristi Boswell, labor and immigration congressional relations director for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington.
Boswell has some ominous concern for growers in the Southeast, “If they don’t feel it (labor shortage) yet, the likelihood of them feeling it soon is probably high,” she says.
So far, NC’s farmers say they aren’t experiencing a significant shortage. But harvest season has yet to peak in the state, so it’s difficult to tell whether the state will experience a lack of labor, says Larry Wooten, president of the NC Farm Bureau.
NC relies on about 90,000 migrant farm workers, says Lee Wicker, deputy director of the NC Growers Association. Wicker, who farms tobacco in Lee County, estimates that about 60,000 of those workers are in the country illegally. Prior to hiring workers through the Federal H-2A program, the NC Growers Association must first advertise its farm jobs to Americans.
Last year the agency posted more than 7,500 jobs, yet only 350 Americans applied. Though virtually all the American applicants were accepted for jobs, virtually all of them quit before their contract expired.
Vick Family Farms in Wilson is a long-time user of H-2A labor. They farm tobacco and sweet potatoes, both of which are highly labor intensive. Though there are always concerns from one crew of workers to another, for the most part Lyn Vick says the H-2A program has worked on their farm.
The Vick family, including Dianne and Jerome Vick and son and daughter Lyn and Charlotte Vick, all work in the farming operation.
Each member of the Vick family speaks Spanish. Simply speaking the language has made working relationships much better and reduces communication problems that are often the source of many employer/H-2A laborer problems.
“My Spanish isn’t always perfect, but I can communicate well enough for workers to understand what I want them to do, and I can usually answer any questions they have in a way they can understand,” Lyn Vick says.
The H-2A program is expensive and the chance of being sued under the conditions of the work visas is high. Despite the cost and risks involved with using H-2A labor, for most growers in labor intensive crops, like sweet potatoes, vegetables and tobacco, it is a much lower risk than planting a crop without the certainty of having labor available to pick it.
The cost of the program to farmers extends far beyond the guaranteed work hours and pay at $9.70 per hour that is required for H2-A laborers. The average cost of getting a farm worker to the farm is about $1,000 per worker.
Host farmers must also provide housing, on-farm transportation, workers compensation insurance, and a number of other provisions called for in the H-2A visas.
“There’s one thing that’s more expensive than the H-2A program, and that’s having a beautiful crop ready to harvest and no one to pick it,” Wicker says.
In 2011, NC adopted a mandatory E-Verify system to be phased in by July 2013, requiring all business owners to confirm the legal status of their workers through the electronic program.
On October 1, 2012, the law takes effect for employers that employ 500 or more employees. On January 1, 2013, the law takes effect for employers that employ 100 or more employees. On July 1, 2013, the law takes effect for employers that employ 25 or more employees.
“The key to ensuring a legal and reliable agriculture labor supply nationwide is to enact policy that makes the H-2A program more user-friendly or to create additional facilitator organizations like the growers association,” says NC Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler.