On Caroline Hines’ wedding day last fall, she was surrounded by friends and family she had known all of her life.
That included some of the H-2A visa-holding seasonal workers who have worked her family’s tobacco and sweet potato fields for the last 20 years.
“I mean they live on the farm; they basically live with us and work,” Hines said. “How can they not be family after so long?” Hines said.
Caroline Hines is a fourth-generation farmer, following her father Jamie, who farmed the Selma-area soil after his father and his father before him. Each year, the Hines farm puts in a request for seasonal workers under the federal H-2A temporary-visa program. This year, they’re using 21 H-2A workers from Mexico, some of whom arrived last month and will work on the farm until the fall.
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Amidst talk of a border wall and tightening immigration restrictions, the Hines family hopes something doesn’t get lost. They’re not thrilled with the H-2A program, calling it expensive and overstuffed with regulations, but they said it’s vital. Without the visa program, Caroline Hines said, farming would stop.
“We couldn’t farm,” she said. “We’d be out of business.”
In order to get H-2A workers, U.S. farmers must first try to recruit locally, but Hines and her father said few are interested. Over the last few years, only a couple of locals have answered the call to earn minimum wage in the family’s Johnston County fields. Caroline Hines said she often hears people talk about Latino employees taking American farming jobs, but she said that’s not the case.
“There are opportunities for American citizens to do this job, but obviously that’s not working out,” Hines said. “People say, ‘All the money is going back to Mexico.’ Yeah, we know. What do you want us to do about it?”
Her father agreed, saying it’s hard to keep local workers on the job through the season. One time, Jamie Hines said, a local worker showed up drunk on the first day, and he added that many don’t show up at all. Caroline Hines said their farm had not had issues with any H-2A workers except one many years ago who completely disappeared after a few days on the job.
“The local workforce, they’ll work a day or two,” Hines said. “We just can’t find anyone to sustain this. Tobacco’s hard work. There’s a lot of mechanization, but it’s still hot, sticky. But that’s the way I was raised. I’ve been in it my whole life. You can do it or you can’t.”
Hines and her father shared their story last week with representatives of New American Economy, a bipartisan lobbying group focusing on immigration. On its social media accounts, the group emphasizes the contributions made by immigrants to American innovation and society. Dee Stewart, a Raleigh publicist representing the group locally, said the purpose of the meeting was to hear what immigration protections farmers need to get their work done. Stewart noted that in North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District, which includes Johnston, a third of the agriculture workforce is foreign born.
“The catalyst for all this, it seems like for the first time in many, many, many years, we might actually get an immigration bill,” Stewart said. “Now the question is, now that we have an immigration bill that’s going to be drafted, that will be debated and probably voted on, the question is can we get the right immigration bill that not only secures the border, but gives us the workforce we need at all levels of our economy to make it go.”
Caroline Hines said the biggest issue with H-2A visa holders is how expensive the program is for her farm. These workers earn a set $11.27 an hour, but Hines argues it’s closer to $20 an hour when you factor in the free housing and transportation the farm is required to provide.
“It’s just very expensive, and we have a lot of regulation,” she said. “But I love our guys. We can leave this farm and they still keep it running.”
Caroline Hines said labor costs go up each year and that mechanization has been maxed out. (She could bring in sweet potato diggers, but she said that would tear up a fair amount of the crop and cut into North Carolina’s competitive edge in quality.)
Figuring out labor, whether that means cultivating a better local workforce or streamlining the process of bringing in foreign workers, is the main question of these times.
“For my generation of farmers, it will be the number one issue,” Hines said. “The uncertainty, the instability, if we can’t have an economic, sustainable solution to labor, I don’t know how we’re going to continue to farm.”