Agriculture in North Carolina has a lot going for it — great research and outreach university at North Carolina State, outstanding leader in Steve Troxler as Ag Commissioner, rich land and good climate — among other things.

Two things agriculture in the Tar Heel State doesn’t have going for it are labor and land. North Carolina loses more farm land to industry and residential purposes annually than any state other than California.

Farm Labor is a chronic problem, especially for the state’s burgeoning vegetable industry. The North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA) was formed some years back to help state farmers line up qualified, legal seasonal workers for any farmer in North Carolina.

By all accounts from farmers the role of NCGA in helping them line up H2A labor has been invaluable. Growers pay a membership fee annually and have access to foreign labor, especially Mexican labor. Many growers get the same workers year after year, reducing management and training time and improving worker efficiency.

Also working with H2A labor via the NCGA gives growers some leeway in moving labor around from farm to farm — something they cannot do when they contract with H2A labor on their own.

One of the fallouts of switching presidents of the United States is a shakeup in cabinet positions and their staffs. The NCGA’s farm labor program nearly became a casualty of the new administration.

Farmers, agribusiness industries and farm worker advocacy groups worked for years with the out-going Bush administration to build a program to provide legal, reliable and non-immigrant workers to do farm jobs that U.S. citizens simply won’t do.

In March, 2009 incoming Labor Secretary Hilda Solis sought to suspend the final rules for the H2-A program — rules that were already in place. The plan was to revert back to old temporary rules that were a detriment to both farmers and farm labor. For an extra flex of muscle, the administrator gave only a 10-day comment period.

Secretary Hilda L. Solis was confirmed as Secretary of Labor on Feb. 24, 2009. Prior to confirmation as Secretary of Labor, Secretary Solis represented the 32nd Congressional District in California, a position she held from 2001 to 2009.

In December 2008 then Labor Secretary Elaine Chao issued final regulations governing the H2A farm worker program that replaced temporary rules that were established in 1987. Within a few days of taking office, Secretary Solis issued a notice to suspend the rules that had been implemented on Jan. 17, and reverting back to the 1987 regulations.

The North Carolina Growers Association, in union with 17 other agriculture and labor groups, took on the new administration’s attempt to sidestep the Administrative Procedures Act, which would have significantly jeopardized farm labor supply and the 2009 fruit and vegetable crops in the Southeast.

In a rare, but significant success story of the little man fighting the government, the 18 farm and labor groups — many of which in the past have been at odds with each other — fought and won against the U.S. Department of Labor.

On June 29, 2009, the Honorable Judge William L. Osteen, a district court judge for the Middle District of North Carolina, granted the grower’s motion for preliminary injunction against the U.S. Department of Labor. The court order stopped the current administration from suspending final rule regulations for the H2A program until a trial can be held.

“The farmers who use H2A labor in North Carolina and around the country thought the final rules for H2A that were recently implemented balanced the needs of agriculture and improved conditions for farm laborers,” says Stan Eury, executive director of the North Carolina Growers Association.

Winning a battle doesn’t mean winning a war, but at least for the 2009 growing season the NCGA and their friends have stopped plans by the Obama administration to over-haul what has become an indispensible part of the fruit and vegetable industry in the Southeast.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com