N.C. wary of possible farm labor shortage

lcarroll@newsobserver.comJuly 26, 2012 

  • H-2a program North Carolina is the No. 1 user of the H-2a program, which gives seasonal work visas to migrant workers. That gives the state a significant advantage in the reliability of its farm labor supply. Of the 70,000 H-2a laborers in the nation, North Carolina has about 10,000 – nearly 15 percent. Nationally, H-2a laborers make up about 3 percent of all farm workers, but they are nearly 10 percent of the workforce in North Carolina, a share that is growing.

North Carolina is a top producer of tobacco, sweet potatoes and other fruits and vegetables – but in the near future, farmers might not have enough workers to pick them.

Across the nation, the number of seasonal agricultural workers is shrinking, costing billions. That’s largely the result of a diminishing number of migrant workers coming from Mexico.

So far, North Carolina’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, said Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau.

North Carolina has a strong guest worker visa program, and its immigration laws are not as strict as some nearby states.

The labor shortage is affecting each state differently, said Kristi Boswell, labor and immigration congressional relations director for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington.

“If they don’t feel it yet, the likelihood of them feeling it soon is probably high,” Boswell said.

A significant labor shortage could have a considerable impact on the North Carolina economy, which draws more than $70 billion – about 20 percent of the state’s income – from agriculture. And because the state is a leading producer of numerous crops, a shortage would affect local and national produce costs. The Farm Bureau Federation recently projected that national agricultural labor shortages will cost $5 billion to $9 billion in annual losses.

“If we don’t have an adequate supply of labor, the crops are going to rot in the fields,” said N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “And eventually it’s going to affect prices.”

North Carolina relies on about 90,000 migrant farm workers, said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the N.C. Growers Association. Wicker, who farms tobacco in Lee County, estimates that about 60,000 of those workers are in the country illegally.

Thousands of North Carolina residents are jobless, with a statewide unemployment rate of more than 9 percent, according to the state Department of Commerce. But some farmers say most Americans are unwilling to take farm jobs that require hard labor under a blazing sun for little pay.

Tony Ross, who grows several crops in Moore County, said Americans might take jobs operating tractors or other heavy machinery, but they often avoid jobs that involve manual labor.

“They shun this for the most part,” he said.

The growers association, which helps farmers hire migrant guest workers, is required to first market its jobs to Americans. The agency posted 7,500 jobs this year, and about 350 Americans applied. But an overwhelming number of them quit after several days in the fields, Wicker said.

“Our growers want to hire U.S. workers, but they’re scared that when we get to the hard work, everyone quits,” he said.

The Farm Bureau Federation estimates that illegal immigrants account for between 50 percent and 70 percent of all farm workers in the United States, on top of migrants who are working in the United States legally.

The number of people immigrating to the United States from Mexico is now almost equal to those immigrating to Mexico from the United States, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study. The slowdown is possibly a result of a crackdown on illegal immigration in the United States, increased violence along the border and a growing job market in Mexico.

An upturn in the United States’ economy could further draw migrant laborers away from farm work and toward other job sectors with better working conditions and higher wages, such as construction, said Blake Brown, a professor and extension economist at North Carolina State University.

“[Farm] labor is going to be scarce relative to the demand if we see a rebound in construction in the future,” Brown said.

An ‘adequate supply’

Although most North Carolina farmers are able to find an “adequate supply” of labor, farmer Billy Carter said he does not think they are able to secure as many workers as they would like. Carter grows more than 1,000 acres of tobacco, watermelons, tomatoes and other crops in Eagle Springs, a community in Moore County.

Green card and illegal migrant workers typically travel up the East Coast along Interstate 95, stopping in several states for seasonal work throughout the year. This “migrant stream” has all but evaporated in the past few years, Wicker said.

Also, some North Carolina farmers wrongly anticipated that they would see an influx of migrant workers avoiding Alabama and Georgia because of tough anti-illegal immigration laws in those states that require immigrants to carry identification documents at all times, as well as requiring employers to electronically verify the legal status of their employees.

Last year, Hurricane Irene destroyed a significant portion of the tobacco plants in the eastern part of North Carolina, so farmers expected to have a surplus of labor to harvest other crops. But even large sweet potato farms along Interstate 95, a prime opportunity for migrant workers because of the location, had trouble finding enough people to harvest the product, Carter said.

He noted that workers who lost their jobs in manufacturing or construction at the beginning of the recession in 2008 flocked to his farm looking for work.

“But in the past couple of years, that has gone away because either they’ve secured a job or they’ve gone home,” he said.

Reliable labor

The H-2a visa program, which brings migrant workers to the United States on seasonal work visas, is expensive – about $1,000 per worker on top of a guaranteed $9.70 per hour wage, housing and transportation. It also requires a hefty amount of paperwork. But farmers say it is worth it to have a reliable labor force. Many of North Carolina’s signature crops that require hard manual labor – such as tobacco and sweet potatoes – are time sensitive.

“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 said.

The visa program is more successful in North Carolina than other states because of the growers association, which manages the paperwork, transportation and training for about 7,000 of the state’s H-2a workers, easing the farmers’ burden. Wicker said the number of members has been continuously increasing, especially in the last couple of years.

Cruz Dias of San Luis Portosi, Mexico, exemplifies the H-2a program. He has worked six months a year at Ross’ tobacco farm for 23 years. With the money he has earned, he was able to send his three children to college in Mexico.

“I work in Mexico a little bit, not too much,” Dias said. “The work here is all I need. ... It’s pretty good for money, for school, for food.”

‘Survivors’

With the looming labor shortage, the agriculture industry is looking for ways to weather the storm.

Many farmers are switching to mechanized harvesting for crops that do not necessarily require manual labor, such as tobacco, Brown said. Additionally, North Carolina is third in the nation for crop diversity. A wide array of crop possibilities allows farmers to pick and choose what they grow, based on consumer demand as well as labor constraints.

“Farmers are survivors,” Wicker said, noting that farmers might abandon a crop if there is not enough manual labor available to sustain it.

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, Troxler said.

In 2011, North Carolina 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. Some North Carolina congressional leaders have said they plan to consider a more aggressive approach to the immigration issue in the future.

The mandatory E-Verify system has been a “game changer” in agriculture because many farmers have no choice but to rely on illegal labor, so there is an incentive for farmers to hire under the table, Wooten said. He noted that the business community in North Carolina would oppose strict immigration laws like those in Alabama, Georgia and Arizona because it would expedite the labor shortage and hurt the state economy.

The government should make the reforms and reduce regulations instead of asking farmers to make changes to their farms that could cost them crops and profit, Boswell said.

“It should come from a federal level,” she said. “There should be reform instead of leaving growers to solve it on their own.”

Carroll: 919-829-4918

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