Kirby Johnson’s family has been farming in Henderson County, in southwest North Carolina, for seven generations. “All I’ve ever done is farm, and my daddy before me, and my grandfather before him,” he says. In addition to running his own 600-acre farm, Johnson helps manage another of his family’s companies, Flavor 1st Growers and Packers, which sells produce from Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas to wholesalers and grocery chains. Flavor 1st operates about 17,000 acres of sweetcorn, tomatoes, beans, peppers, and other produce. The company reports $80 million in annual sales and employs upward of 600 people. Still, Johnson says, that success wouldn’t be possible without foreign-born labor. “We depend entirely on Hispanic workers,” he says.
In recent years, however, Johnson has had trouble finding enough workers. “Right now, I’ve got about 57 people planting, and I need 90,” he says. The Hispanic workforce is aging, and the number of new immigrants arriving in the United States to work in agriculture has declined dramatically in recent years, creating labor shortages for farmers across the country. “We’re all crying about the same stuff. We’re having to slow down, because we can’t get crops picked,” Johnson says. Two years ago, Johnson lost 30 percent of his crop in North Carolina, an $800,000 loss, because he couldn’t find workers to bring in the harvest. “I can’t afford to keep losing $800,000 — I’d lose the land my grandfather owned,” Johnson says.
During the planting season, Johnson’s workers make up to $12 an hour, while at harvest time the quickest pickers can make $300 a day on a piece rate. “They make a pile of money,” Johnson says. “But I appreciate paying them every dime, because I can’t do without them.”
We don’t raise our kids to work on farms.
Despite the wage, Johnson says the U.S.-born population no longer seems interested in field labor. “Americans? You can forget it, I don’t care what you pay,” he says. “We don’t raise our kids to work on farms.” Instead, Johnson employs several hundred Hispanic migrant workers, many of whom work year-round on the family’s land, moving seasonally from Florida to North Carolina and back. It is a story that plays out across the region: half of the workforce in the state’s $5.8 billion agricultural sector is made up of foreign-born labor.
After his costly crop loss, Johnson reduced the amount of land he farms in Henderson County from 1,300 acres to just 600 acres. “I’ve cut my operations by 50 percent due to not having a reliable workforce,” he says. While farm revenue has shrunk, from $6 million to around $3 million, it beats losing money on unpicked crops. But the cutback has also hurt Johnson’s suppliers. “The trickle-down effect is unbelievable. That’s less spray material, less stakes, less twine,” he says. “If our revenues are down 50 percent, it also cuts everyone else down.”
Despite the cuts, Johnson still does not have enough workers. “In South Florida, we left stuff this year we couldn’t pick,” he says. “If I could pick everything I planted, we’d get the sales. But we don’t have the workforce.” A 20-acre lot of tomatoes needs picking every other day in order to avoid over-ripening, Johnson explains. “You end up cutting it to 12 acres and picking it right, and watching the rest rot on the vine. People won’t even come pick ‘em for free, so you plow it back into the ground. It’s mind-boggling.”
What farmers need, Johnson says, is immigration reform. Johnson helped dozens of his workers gain legal status in the 1980s, after immigration reform legislation championed by President Ronald Reagan provided amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. He thinks a similar program, with proper vetting and a probationary period, might be the right idea again. “You can’t just legalize everyone,” he says. “But we need good people.”
Johnson voted for President Donald Trump, hoping he’d take a pragmatic approach to immigration. “He’s been in business long enough, building buildings and all that stuff, that he knows what it takes,” Johnson says. “Any hard labor in the US, from cleaning people up in hospitals to doing the laundry at the Hilton, is being done by Hispanics. Trump knows that.”
So far, though, Johnson has been disappointed by the new administration. “I figured Trump would be on this real quick, but it’s just faded away,” he says. Unless Democrats and Republicans come together to pass immigration reform, he fears that farms like his will go out of business. “It’s heartbreaking,” he says. “I’ve got a nephew and three grandsons. What am I going to hand them, unless I have a legal workforce?”
He predicts farms will wind up consolidating and switching to less labor-intensive crops. “You can run a 3,000-acre farm with three people when you’re talking about soybeans,” he says. Such a lack of agricultural diversity would be bad for farming families and bad for consumers, Johnson says, but without foreign-born workers, he cannot see an alternative. “I don’t see no light at the end of the tunnel on this one,” he says. “We’ll have to quit, and that’s the honest-to-God truth. Three years from now, at the rate everything is going, I don’t think I’ll be able to get enough help to pick 10 acres, never mind 10,000 acres.”