For the past six generations, Kenny Barnwell’s family has been in the apple-growing business; in fact, Barnwell has never lived more than 100 yards from an apple orchard. As a young boy, he remembers his grandmother’s sisters visiting to help pick apples, along with a couple of local families. “It was all done by Americans,” he says. But those days are long gone: When Barnwell graduated college and started working on his uncle’s 500-acre farm, virtually all of the farm’s 100 or so agricultural laborers were Hispanic migrant workers.
Now, Barnwell runs his own 160-acre apple farm, and he says that he would be out of business if he had to rely on American workers to pick his crops. The wages are decent — $10 an hour, or up to $200 a day for piece-work — but few locals are interested in hauling 35-pound pick sacks around in the hot sun. “It’s hard work. It’s repetitive, it’s physically demanding, and Americans just aren’t interested in working that hard,” Barnwell says. “As far as going out and finding someone by advertising in the paper, my apples would rot out in the orchard before I could get enough picked to matter.”
Picking apples is an acquired skill — picking them fast enough, and without bruising them.
That’s a typical North Carolina story. Almost 50 percent of the state’s farm workers were born outside the United States, according to New American Economy research, and many farmers rely on foreign-born workers to bring in their harvests and sustain the state’s $5.8 billion agricultural industry.
Still, Barnwell has had to scale back his production in recent years, in part due to labor issues. He used to farm about 300 acres and employed around three dozen Hispanic laborers on a seasonal basis. But new rules made it harder for him to find dependable migrant workers — “You never knew when you were going to have a rain come through and nobody there to pick your apples,” he explains — so he downsized and switched to a longer harvesting cycle. These days, he uses a crew of about half a dozen Latino workers, who live in the area year-round and pick apples steadily from early July to Thanksgiving.
As far as Barnwell knows, his workers are all authorized to work in the United States. “They all have green cards and Social Security cards, and by law that’s all I’m allowed to ask for,” he says. But even if some of his workers are undocumented, Barnwell says he is far better off with steady, year-round help than he would be if he had to rely on temporary guest-worker programs like the H2A visa. Plenty of his friends in the specialty-crop business have told him horror stories about the paperwork and expense involved in bringing in seasonal workers, and some have almost been driven out of business. when the workers don’t arrive on time due to bureaucratic delays.
That is why Barnwell wants to see not just a more streamlined visa system for agricultural workers, but also a clear path to legal status for people who are already in the country. “I need my trained employees, the ones who are here and are trained and know what they’re doing,” he explains. “Picking apples is an acquired skill — picking them fast enough, and without bruising them. You want that trained workforce to stay here.”
That doesn’t mean Barnwell supports an amnesty. He says undocumented workers should pay a fine, clear a background check, and go through a probationary period before earning the right to stay. But giving undocumented workers a chance to make things right would be a good thing for the apple-growing business, and for farmers more generally, he says. “Agriculture wants to grow, and if we had the labor, if we had a workable system, then we’d be expanding. It’d be growing at a pretty fast pace.”
The alternative would be to watch the immigrant labor supply dry up amid a general crackdown in undocumented workers — and that would be a disaster for agricultural employers, Barnwell says. That is especially true for orchards like his, where farmers have made long-term commitments to grow specific, labor-intensive crops. “I can’t decrease my planting. I put that tree in the ground and I’m married to it for the next 25 years,” he says. “That’s my worst nightmare: To grow a beautiful, perfect crop of fruit, and have the market for it, but not have the labor to pick it and sell it.”