From Larry B. Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau:
When you eat a delicious salad, do you ever think about how that fresh cucumber or tomato got to your plate?
Chances are a migrant worker picked it.
Immigrants are an essential part of the process that puts food on our plates. The vast majority of workers who harvest our food 75 percent are foreign-born. Despite the crucial role of migrant workers in the agriculture industry, the federal government has failed to create a workable immigration process that provides U.S. farms with an adequate supply of farm workers.
Tough state immigration laws and a lack of federal immigration solutions by Congress in addition to an enforcement crackdown by the executive branch are leaving farmers across the country in crisis, with too few hands to pick our apples and cucumbers as harvest season ramps up.
We need elected leaders to come together on immigration. Otherwise, North Carolinas economy, which draws more than $72 billion from agriculture and related agri-businesses, will suffer.
Some may ask, why not simply increase wages to lure more native-born job seekers? Farmers across the country have been trying that for years. Wage increases still do not cause a spike in applications by native-born workers.
Whether it is apple or peach orchards, Christmas trees, tobacco, dairy, blueberry or sweet potato farms, the relentless, physical work is not for the faint of heart. Farm workers must endure long hours under the blistering sun. They must remain agile and meticulous in order to harvest high-quality, blemish-free crops.
North Carolina is a state of relatively small, diverse family farms. Switching to machine harvestable crops like the Midwest did is rarely an option here. In order to remain in business, farmers have few alternatives other than to grow these labor intensive crops. Loss of these farms eliminates jobs and takes significant money out of the local economy.
Because each skilled farm worker sustains two to three nonfarm jobs, downsizing food production reverberates throughout the economy. From the fertilizer supplier to those who work in food packaging to the driver transporting the food to the store, jobs are at stake.
Farmers have a hard enough job with the weather and the price of fuel determining whether we can meet our bottom line each year. Add to that list an unpredictable supply of labor, and we are downright vulnerable.
Farms can always cut back production, but that wont decrease Americans demand for fresh, unblemished vegetables and fruits.
We have a gridlocked Congress that is sitting on its hands while farmers watch crops rot in the field because we do not have enough workers for harvest. We also have an administration whose I-9 audits point the weapons of government enforcement at agricultural employers without offering any solution to the problem at hand.
Sound hopeless? Its not. These are solvable problems. We need a guest worker process that is responsive to our economic needs. For farmers, that means a stable and skilled agricultural workforce. Once Democrats and Republicans including North Carolinas congressional delegation recognize that, we can create legal channels that make sense for workers, and dollars and cents for our economy.