During his decades as a tobacco farmer, Larry Wooten has seen the supply of native-born farm workers gradually wane and immigrant labor become increasingly critical to North Carolina’s agricultural sector. He says the existing seasonal guest-worker program isn’t capable of meeting farmers’ labor needs and that reform is needed to help the state’s farmers and the broader economy.
For more than two decades, Larry Wooten, the president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, managed a 700-acre tobacco and grain farm with his brother—but he still remembers how much he disliked farm labor as a boy. After a tough day picking suckers off tobacco plants under the sweltering North Carolina sun, he’d complain to his grandmother that it was backbreaking work, and that he couldn’t see himself spending his life working in the fields. “It was hard, hot work, and I didn’t want to do it as an adult,” he recalls.
I began to use immigrant labor because they were the ones who were available and wanted the work.
Getting a college education gave Wooten a bit more perspective: Figuring there was a good future in agriculture, he returned home to continue farming. Still, he says, these days, many Americans feel the same way he once did about agricultural work. “The supply of local labor dried up in the mid-80s,” Wooten says. “I began to use immigrant labor because they were the ones who were available and wanted the work.”
The trend continued, and, these days, immigrant workers are vital to North Carolina’s $84 billion agricultural sector. North Carolina’s highly varied blend of crops—tobacco, Christmas trees, blueberries, sweet potatoes, and more—don’t lend themselves to mechanized harvesting, Wooten explains. Even when such harvesting is possible, it tends to bruise crops and reduce their value: Machine-picked berries are usually only fit for pie fillings and jams, rather than the more lucrative fresh produce marketplace, for instance.
Wooten says that North Carolina farmers will gladly give jobs to any Americans who ask for them, but few do. For many immigrants, on the other hand, farm labor is highly attractive. On a recent trip to Mexico, Wooten spoke to dozens of farmers whose laborers made about as much in a day as an American farm worker makes in an hour. Wooten says that given such circumstances, Mexican workers will continue to come here, even without documentation. “As long as there’s demand for workers, people will continue to try to cross the border to fill those jobs,” Wooten says.
Ultimately, Wooten says, it’s against America’s interests to hinder the flow of immigrant labor or to seek to deport undocumented workers. About 17 percent of North Carolina residents are employed in jobs that depend, directly or indirectly, upon agriculture—and with the state’s farmers dependent upon immigrants, that means huge numbers of native-born North Carolinians essentially owe their jobs to immigrant workers. “There’s a multiplier effect: If it weren’t for immigrants out there picking beans and getting products to market, there’d be tremendous numbers of Americans out of work,” Wooten says.
What’s needed, Wooten says, is an overhaul that allows entry for sufficient numbers of foreign workers, while also providing a pathway to legal status for those undocumented workers who’ve been in the country for decades. The current H2-A visa system, which allows farmers to bring in limited numbers of workers on a seasonal basis, doesn’t supply enough of the labor needed to bring in the harvest, and Wooten is skeptical that the “expensive and cumbersome” program could ever meet the industry’s total labor needs. About 70 to 75 percent of American agricultural workers are currently undocumented immigrants, he notes. “You couldn’t push that many visas through the H2-A system,” he says.
To Wooten, fixing the immigration system doesn’t have to mean full amnesty; nor should it mean downgrading border security. “Farmers are Americans, and we want to have a border system that works. Nobody’s opposed to that,” he says. “But we also need a guest worker program that’ll work.” The bottom line is that the status quo leaves millions of people mired in the shadows—and that’s bad for immigrants, bad for farmers, and bad for the economy. “It isn’t just an agricultural issue, it’s an American issue,” Wooten says. “It isn’t a Democratic or Republican, or liberal or conservative issue—it’s an American issue, and we need to deal with it.”