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.