Kendall Hill is co-owner and president of Tull Hill Farms, one of North Carolina’s longest running, largest and most successful vegetable crop farming operations.

The biggest risk to operations like his, Hill says, is the availability and affordability of labor.

“I’m 72 years old. I can’t work in the fields, and I can’t find local people willing to work — I have to depend on migrant labor,” Hill says.

Tull Hill Farms is a model for how H-2A labor should work. Workers at the farm have heated, air-conditioned living quarters, complete with Dish Network TV. Their travel costs to and from their home country are paid and they are guaranteed at least minimum wage.

By diversifying his farming operation Hill has been able to spread out the cost of his H-2A workers, but most growers don’t have the opportunity of land and processing facilities to do that. Many growers, even larger acreage growers, are in the ‘no-man’s land’ of legal, but not affordable H-2A labor and the high risk of working illegal migrant workers.

Changes in migrant labor laws in the Deep South are making the labor situation much worse and are crippling the growth of what should be burgeoning fruit and vegetable industries in the Carolinas and Virginia.

“What too many politicians and people in the general public don’t seem to understand is that these migrant workers aren’t taking jobs from American citizens. I’d love to hire local labor, but they simply aren’t available.

“The migrant laborer who comes to work on our farm doesn’t pay taxes, but doesn’t utilize tax-paid services either. But most importantly, what too many people don’t seem to understand is that these migrant workers allow folks like me to stay in business and pay taxes.

“Farms are small businesses and that’s what every politician seems to think we need more of in this country, but they are making it real hard for farm businesses to stay in business and pay taxes,” Hill says.

Everyone wants a viable visitor worker program, but nobody seems to know what that is, the North Carolina farmer says.

“We want the same migrant crews to come to our farm every year and we do everything we can to treat them well and pay them well, so they’ll come back next year. I can’t imagine any farmer who wants to stay in business very long would do anything other than take good care of his or her labor force,” Hill says.

Though each state has different laws for migrant workers, changes in one state can have a devastating effect on others. Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, with some of the strictest migrant labor laws in the nation are pass-through states for workers moving eastward from Mexico and Central America.

Rather than travel through these states and risk legal problems, many simply take another route to find plentiful farm labor jobs in other regions.

And, it’s not just farm jobs that are affected. In Alabama, a prominent auto manufacturer fell victim of the state’s harsh migrant worker laws for employing a mid-level manager from Korea, who didn’t have the proper paperwork.

Georgia’s version of the Arizona-like migrant labor law is HB 87, which requires that certain employers check their new workers’ immigration status and gives law enforcement officers more leeway to check a suspect’s immigration status.

Being challenged in court

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill May 13, but, like Alabama’s HB56, it’s being challenged in federal court.

In South Carolina, the state legislature passed S20, again similar to migrant labor laws passed in Alabama and Georgia. The bill was signed into law by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at the end of June.

The South Carolina law requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of someone who had been arrested for an unrelated reason, if the officer suspects the person is in the country illegally.

South Carolina’s law, effective in January, is similar to Georgia’s but requires the creation of a specialized police unit to monitor illegal aliens.

In South Carolina the Hispanic population increased 148 percent in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census. Hispanics now make up 5.1 percent of South Carolina’s population and are mostly of Mexican origin.

Though laws in North Carolina and Virginia stop well short of such Draconian measures, they don’t do anything to help alleviate the farm labor shortage and they don’t offer any assistance for migrant workers to avoid being detained, jailed and deported by simply passing through states with harsher migrant labor laws.

Perhaps the ultimate loser in what has become a legalized shut-down of migrant farm labor is the American public. At best, new labor laws, even revamped H-2A laws are going to create more paper work and more care in hiring and housing farm labor — all of which is going to cost farmers more money and ultimately raise the price of fruits and vegetables grown in the Southeast.

A characteristic of fruit and vegetable crops is that it takes a relatively few people to plant a crop, or to manage an existing fruit orchard, but it takes large numbers of seasonal labor to harvest these crops.

Knowing how much of which crop to produce is an ongoing challenge for farmers, but nothing compared to figuring out what to do with an excess of a crop, if labor is not available to harvest it.

“We’re looking for alternative sources for our peaches, even for use as biofuels, because we don’t have the labor to pick the crop or to run our packing house,” says one South Carolina peach grower. He doesn’t want his name used because he fears it will bring down investigations of his farming operation and his use of migrant labor.

The vegetable industry in the Palmetto State is equally challenged. One Charleston County, vegetable grower says he ended up burning 25 percent of his 80-acre tomato crop, because he had no labor to hand-pick the crop.

"I could have used 300 pickers. I had 40. I burned 25 percent of my tomato crop. These people don't cause any trouble. They just come here to work," he says. Like the South Carolina peach grower, the Charleston County vegetable grower fears reprisals and is hesitant to say ‘too much’ about the labor situation in his state.

Federal lawmakers are making efforts to correct some of the harsher elements of these state laws, but with grudging, if any, support from the states.

Bill would overhaul H-2A program

U.S. Congressman, Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, proposed a bill to Congress to overhaul the H-2A program.

Congressman Smith says the current H-2A program is not being used by most fruit and vegetable growers. Instead, he contends, these farmers have turned to an estimated 1.1 million illegal immigrants.

With the new laws, these workers are vanishing from key Southeast production areas at an alarming rate.

Unlike their neighbors to the south, North Carolina has taken a comprehensive look at the impact such harsh migrant labor laws would have on the state’s economy.

North Carolina trails California, Texas, Washington and Florida to be the country’s fifth most populous farm worker state. The state’s tobacco, sweet potato and rapidly growing vegetable industries simply couldn’t operate without migrant labor.

A majority of the estimated 200,000 migrant workers who help sustain the state’s agriculture industry are of Latin descent, and a majority call Mexico home.

This labor force is critical to the continued survival, much less growth, of the state’s $2.2 billion tobacco, greenhouse-nursery, vegetable, and fruit industry.

Lee Wicker, who is deputy director for the North Carolina Growers Association, says he was expecting an increase in available farm labor, based on passage of the stringent immigration laws passed in neighboring states. “I thought they would come here to find work and to avoid the states with Arizona-type legislation,” Wicker notes.

“Though I don’t have any verifiable numbers, my sense is there is a more acute lack of farm labor, though I don’t think it’s all attributable to passage of new laws in other states.

“The downturn in the economy, especially the housing industry, has forced migrant labor to look to other areas for work — I think it’s a combination of things, but the end result is an increasingly short labor supply for our farmers,” Wicker says.

Debbie Hamrick, who heads the specialty crops program for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, says the lack of legal labor and the expense of using the H-2A program has been particularly difficult for growers trying to get into the specialty crop industry in the state.

Like Wicker, Hamrick says she has no hard and fast evidence on the level of labor shortage or the economic damage it is causing North Carolina. She says visits with farmers and talk by farmers at meetings indicates the shortage is significant and causing growers to reevaluate how they grow crops in many cases.

rroberson@farmpress.com