September 2, 2006


Immigration controls cause worker shortage

Farmers at a loss for laborers

by John Boyle

Everyone knows immigration has been in the news lately, and many Americans are all for a crackdown at the borders.

But there is one side effect of tighter patrols and more restrictions that not everyone thinks about — a shortage of farm help.

“Matter of fact, if we don’t get more help in here, I’ll lose apples — they’ll hit the ground rotten,” said Marvin Lively, who grows 60 acres of apples in Henderson County. “I’ve got five (migrant workers), and I need 10, so I got about half what I need.”

Lively and other growers say most local residents simply won’t do the hard labor that farms require.

“I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights over the past four months wondering how we’re going to make the harvest,” said Kirby Johnson, whose family operates Flavor 1st Produce in Henderson County.

His family has operations in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina and has had the least amount of trouble securing workers in North Carolina.

“We lost acres of corn in Bellglade (Fla.) due to the (shortage in) work crews,” Johnson said. “Overall, about 25 percent of that corn was left in the field due to immigration.”

Problem is complicated

Part of the problem comes from a reduction in the number of workers making it across the border. But the situation

is more complicated than that, said Zane Hedgecock, agricultural program administrator with the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

“There’s a lot of workers in Louisiana and the Mississippi area, and that’s caused some of the shortage that we feel,” Hedgecock said. “They’ll be rebuilding down there for years.”

North Carolina uses about 10,000 of what are designated as H-2A workers a year — more than any other state, according to the department.

H-2A is a federal designation for migrant workers brought to the United States by sponsors who agree to pay them a set wage and provide housing and transportation.

“There’s a lot of other workers than that,” Hedgecock said. “There’s a lot of workers that are here on work visas, and then there’s the problem of the illegal workers or the guys who get across and get jobs. They have a Social Security number or other papers and they present that to the farmer, and it’s hard for him to tell if it’s accurate or not.”

In January, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said the state’s congressional representatives have to understand “that immigration issues and far-reaching changes to the guest worker laws could have a tremendous impact on agriculture production in this state and country,” he said.

It’s no secret that some farmers knowingly use illegal migrant workers, but many contract out with crew leaders who secure the workers for them and provide documentation. Often, growers pay taxes on illegal workers, too, because the government accepts the documentation.

A vital part of farming

Henderson County relies on an estimated 2,000 migrant workers, N.C. Cooperative Extension Service Agent Marvin Owings said. The county’s 200 growers typically produce a crop worth between $22 million and $25 million.

“We couldn’t harvest our crop without them,” Owings said. “That’s not just apples — that’s all of agriculture. Unless it’s mechanized, like with row crops, it requires hand labor.”

One of 1,600 Christmas tree growers in North Carolina, Harry Yates tends about 250 acres of trees in Watauga County and uses seven H-2A workers. He’s been using the same crew for years, but he knows other farmers are looking at a shortage.

The H-2A program is more expensive and involves a lot of paperwork, but he prefers the federal route because he doesn’t have to worry about being fined for using illegal labor and he gets top-quality help.

Yates has to pay the N.C. Growers Association, which handles the paperwork, a $1,000 fee per worker up front.

“Those of us who are doing the right thing are punished for it,” he said. “Between $12.50 and $14 an hour is what it costs when you figure everything in — transportation, insurance, repairs on housing.”

Even though he’s got a set crew, Yates said the “bottom line is there is a shortage of people who will do the agricultural type work.”

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the H-2A program does not have a cap.

“Farmers can bring in as many H-2A workers as they need,” Bentley said.

He noted that anyone with authorization to work in the United States can do farm work, so the pool of workers is not limited to the H-2A workers.

Farmers take ‘anybody’

Many growers who used to participate in the H-2A program have gotten out over the past decade because they consider the regulations overwhelming. Johnson says the housing form makes it clear than migrant housing has “got to be better than a Holiday Inn.”

“And you’ve got to pay $9.32 an hour,” Johnson said. “With what we’re getting for produce, we can’t afford that.”

Lively uses workers with work permits, and they make pretty good money — the most efficient apple harvesters can make $100 to $120 a day for filling 10 to 12 large bins.

When it comes to immigration, he thinks America needs to be tough but realistic.

“They should let them get in here, but don’t give them citizenship — I’ve always said that,” Lively said. “Let them work. They’re not terrorists — these people just come here to make a living, to send money home. These people are good people.”

Yates says his workers have a tremendous work ethic.

“I’ve had the same H-2A men for eight or nine years,” Yates said. “They keep their nose clean, and they’re here to work. One of my men has sent three of his kids through college.”

They aren’t here to take jobs from Americans, Yates and other growers say, mainly because most Americans simply won’t do this work anymore.

Mike Dixon, an agriculture employment consultant with the N.C. Employment Security Commission, covers Watauga, Ashe, Wilkes and Alleghany counties and says all H-2A orders for workers are posted on the ESC system.

“Anybody in the state can apply,” Dixon said. “We’ve had several (local residents) who have shown interest, have applied and have been hired.”

In short, Dixon said, farmers “will take anybody who’ll work.” But migrants do end up doing most of the hard physical farm work in the state.

Lively, the apple grower, said he’s already taken a hit in his vegetable fields because of the shortage in workers and he’s concerned about the apple harvest, which goes into November. He’s got about 15 acres of peppers and squash, and the peppers have only been picked once instead of five or six times.

“There’s just nobody here,” he said. “They can’t get here.”