Mark Peters has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of people looking for work over the course of his 35 years at Piedmont Carolina Nursery.
Peters, who has owned the 40-acre nursery in Guilford County for 20 years, said that the steady supply of local young people looking for work in agriculture that existed 20 years ago – some who had graduated from local high schools and some who had not – no longer exists.
So like many in agriculture, Piedmont Carolina Nursery will have to turn to immigrants to get the work done. That’s why Peters was part of a delegation of farmers and leaders in the N.C. Farm Bureau who went to Washington to press for immigration reform that will ensure them a legal, stable workforce.
Reform, Peters says, is about more than shutting down the border or trying to deport everyone who is in the country illegally – especially for the agriculture industry, which has historically relied on labor from both workers in the country legally and those who are not.
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“Everybody in this industry accepts the fact that border security is critical,” Peters said. “But once that’s done we’ve got to figure out a way to fairly adjust the undocumented workers who are already here to some sort of legal status.”
The Department of Homeland Security last week laid out the Trump’s administration’s plans for more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws – potentially leading to a massive increase in the number of people detained and deported.
“All of those in violation of immigration law may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” the agency wrote.
Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, said the new policy underscores the “urgency of continuing to keep pressure on Congress to fix the immigration problem.”
On the trip to Washington, Wooten and farmers visited the offices of Sen. Richard Burr, Sen. Thom Tillis, Rep. George Holding, Rep. David Rouzer, Rep. Ted Budd and Rep. Mark Meadows, all Republicans, to discuss the need for reform, which Wooten described as “a three-legged stool.”
“The first one has to do with border security, which we all think is important,” Wooten said. “The next leg is getting a guest-worker program that will work and will provide legal workers to come in. The third is some resolution to the adjustment of status of undocumented workers and for them to be allowed to remain here to work if they’re good folks.”
Wooten noted that since Trump’s plans – which instruct the government to more aggressively find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally – were announced, the Farm Bureau has received calls from farmers who are “uneasy about what could happen to undocumented workers” on their farms.
He said that when he was in Washington, legislators didn’t talk about Trump’s plans, but he said they agreed that it is time for Congress to act on reforms.
If those folks were not there to do the jobs, the work would not be getting done.
Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, on the need for foreign workers in agriculture
Burr said in a statement that he recognizes that agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state, and agriculture and the agribusiness community are significant employers in North Carolina.
“I plan to work with the new administration to ensure that the voices of farmers are heard and that we address the policies that are hurting North Carolina agriculture,” Burr said.
Of the 80,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, Wooten estimates that 20,000 are here as part of the H-2A program, which allows foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs. He said that approximately 40,000 of the remaining 60,000 workers are in the country illegally – although many have been living in North Carolina for more than a decade.
Wooten said he believes Congress should pass legislation that enables these workers, if they are abiding by laws and paying taxes, to “come forward and be properly identified and be allowed to stay and continue to contribute to the economy of North Carolina and the nation.”
Both Wooten and Peters noted that they are not advocating for a path to citizenship for workers who entered the country illegally, but a way to give them a legal work status that extends beyond one season.
“We need a workforce for the future,” said Peters, who noted that his four sons all worked part time in the family business during high school but then headed off to college. Now, the oldest three hold jobs in the tech industry while the youngest is finishing his degree.
Peters said he employs about 30 year-round workers. As the economy has rebounded, he is considering expanding – but that would require migrant labor.
In his experience, he said, the argument that workers in the country illegally are taking American jobs does not hold.
“We’ve heard that argument for years,” said Peters. “But in the green industry, we struggle across the board trying to find enough workers to fill the jobs.”
Wooten, too, said that at “farm after farm and business after business,” he has failed to see a “long line of Americans waiting to take those jobs”
“If those folks were not there to do the jobs, the work would not be getting done,” he added. “I can tell you that.”
There are also problems with the existing guest-worker program, which Wooten described as “cumbersome” and expensive for farmers.
Workers hired under the program are paid the adverse effect wage rate, the minimum wage that the U.S. Department of Labor determines must be paid to H-2A workers. That wage went up in North Carolina from $10.72 an hour in 2016 to $11.27 an hour in 2017, which means North Carolina farmers are required to pay their temporary workers more than in many nearby states, including South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. The adverse effect wage rate for 2017 is also $11.27 an hour in Virginia.
“That is causing tremendous hardship and angst on our agricultural producers at a time when the market may not be that strong for some of their products,” Wooten said, citing producers of sweet potatoes, tobacco, fruits and vegetables as being hit hard by the wage increase.
For the past decade, Wooten said, conversations centered on the need for comprehensive immigration reform – for all three legs of the stool to be resolved at the same time. But now, Wooten thinks Congress is “at the point where we need something done.”
“This issue has been dragging on,” he said. “Congress and the new administration should step forward and work to fix it.”
Rachel Chason: 919-829-4629