Tobacco acreage is holding its own in North Carolina, as are sweet potatoes and vegetable and fruit crops.

The labor needed to harvest these crops is not keeping pace and the problem is likely to get worse, unless changes are made in temporary worker program and politics.

Agriculture is the biggest cog in North Carolina’s economic machine, doubling the dollar value of its two closest rivals: Military and tourism. To continue building on the $74 billion industry, agriculture leaders contend a viable labor supply is a must.

Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler says the diversity in North Carolina’s agricultural crops is a blessing, but can be a curse when adequate labor is not available to harvest crops. “No grower is going to plant a crop without some assurance that he or she will have labor to harvest it,” Troxler says

Without question, the state’s nine percent unemployment rate should insure an adequate supply of labor, but it doesn’t. The problem is not endemic to North Carolina, states across the Southeast face similar labor shortages.

Fortunately, North Carolina did not pass the same ultra-restrictive labor laws that their neighbors to the south passed. Despite more liberal laws, the politics of labor are still restrictive, time consuming and expensive.

“North Carolina has a strong guest worker visa program, and its immigration laws are not as strict as some nearby states. The farm labor shortage is affecting each state differently, says Kristi Boswell, labor and immigration congressional relations director for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington.

Boswell has some ominous concern for growers in the Southeast, “If they don’t feel it (labor shortage) yet, the likelihood of them feeling it soon is probably high,” she says.

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, says Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau.

North Carolina relies on about 90,000 migrant farm workers, says Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association. Wicker, who farms tobacco in Lee County, N.C., estimates that about 60,000 of those workers are in the country illegally. Prior to hiring workers through the Federal H-2A program, the North Carolina Growers Association must first advertise its farm jobs to Americans.

Don’t count on local labor

Last year the agency posted more than 7,500 jobs, yet only 350 Americans applied. Though virtually all the American applicants were accepted for jobs, virtually all of them quit before their contract expired.

While there is some hard work, and in adverse weather conditions, farm laborers are treated well and paid well — often much more than minimum wage. The concept most urban residents have of farm labor is much different than the reality of these jobs.

Picking peaches, for example, in the Ridge area of South Carolina is definitely hard labor, but it’s typically done in the morning and in areas shaded by the peach trees.

Typically, workers go from picking peaches in an orchard to sorting and packing peaches in an air-conditioned, ultra clean packing house.

Mexico has long been the primary supplier of farm labor, and more recently, of labor in construction and other industries. The recent economic slowdown in the U.S. has funneled more workers back into agriculture, but the number of Mexican laborers available for all jobs in the U.S. is going down.

A recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center says the number of people immigrating to the United States from Mexico is now almost equal to those immigrating to Mexico from the United States.

The study explains 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.

Blake Brown, a professor and Extension economist at North Carolina State University points out that 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,

The U.S. Farm Bureau Federation estimates that 50-70 percent of all immigrant labor in the U.S. is in the country illegally. Any injustices that occur almost always occur among the illegal laborers.

New, harsh illegal alien laws in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have significantly disrupted long-standing pathways of illegal labor that migrated south to north to harvest farm crops.

The alternative to illegal labor is the Federal H-2A program.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is administered by the Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) of the Employment Training Administration (ETA).

The INA covers agricultural employers seeking to hire temporary agricultural workers under H-2A visas.

The work to be performed must be “of a temporary (or seasonal) nature,” meaning employment that is performed at certain seasons of the year, usually in relation to the production and/or harvesting of a crop, or for a limited time period of less than one year.

The farmer must clearly demonstrate that the need for the foreign workers is truly temporary.

Working on Vick farm

Vick Family Farms in Wilson, N.C., is a long-time user of H-2A labor. They farm tobacco and sweet potatoes, both of which are highly labor intensive. Though there are always concerns from one crew of workers to another, for the most part Lyn Vick says the H-2A program has worked on their farm.

The Vick family, including Dianne and Jerome Vick and son and daughter Lyn and Charlotte Vick, all work in the farming operation.

Each member of the Vick family speaks Spanish. Simply speaking the language has made working relationships much better and reduces communication problems that are often the source of many employer/H-2A laborer problems.

“My Spanish isn’t always perfect, but I can communicate well enough for workers to understand what I want them to do, and I can usually answer any questions they have in a way they can understand,” Lyn Vick says.

The H-2A program is expensive and the chance of being sued under the conditions of the work visas is high. Despite the cost and risks involved with using H-2A labor, for most growers in labor intensive crops, like sweet potatoes, vegetables and tobacco, it is a much lower risk than planting a crop without the certainty of having labor available to pick it.

The cost of the program to farmers extends far beyond the guaranteed work hours and pay at $9.70 per hour that is required for H2-A laborers. The average cost of getting a farm worker to the farm is about $1,000 per worker.

Host farmers must also provide housing, on-farm transportation, workers compensation insurance, and a number of other provisions called for in the H-2A visas.

“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 says.

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.

On Oct. 1, 2012, the law takes effect for employers that employ 500 or more employees. On Jan. 1, 2013, the law takes effect for employers that employ 100 or more employees. On July 1, 2013, the law takes effect for employers that employ 25 or more employees.

An employer covered by the Act will be required to enter a new-hire's information reported on the Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, into the E-Verify system to determine the eligibility of that employee to work in the United States.

An employer must retain the records of the verification of the employee's work authorization during the length of that employee's employment and for one year after the end of the employment period.

“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,” says North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler.

rroberson@farmpress.com