Richmond County farmers are falling victim to what the North Carolina Farm Bureau is calling “a broken system,” resulting in a smaller workforce with less overall profit on the farm.
North Carolina Farm Bureau released its Agriculture Workforce Report on Wednesday revealing evidence of an unstable agriculture workforce and the urgent need to reform a broken system. A press conference was held at 11 a.m. in front of the General Assembly in Raleigh, where nearly 300 N.C. Farm Bureau members and leaders were present in support of common-sense and workable reform in North Carolina.
“We have heard from farmers across North Carolina that one of the most pressing issues they face is the need for a more stable agriculture workforce,” said North Carolina Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten. “North Carolina Farm Bureau and our partners believe that our farmers deserve a voice in Raleigh and in Washington, and we are here today to express their concerns to their elected officials.”
More than 600 North Carolina farmers from 95 of the state’s 100 counties responded to the agriculture workforce survey, a joint effort between Farm Bureau and 18 other agriculture associations. Wooten said the report shows more than 60 percent of surveyed farmers have had trouble hiring qualified domestic employees, and that nearly one-third reported a loss of income in the past five years due to an insufficient supply of workers. Perhaps the most staggering finding was related to the federal E-Verify program: almost one in five surveyed farmers indicated they would shut down their farm if E-Verify became mandatory without a workable guest worker program in place.
“We’re talking billions of dollars and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of jobs lost from our state’s economy,” said Wooten.
Rickie DeWitt of Ellerbe owns DeWitt Farms, and operates a chicken house as well as a flower nursery and flower stand in Aberdeen. He said the H-2A and E-Verify programs are costly and take up too much time. He said he has had to cut back on what he can produce and how many people he can employ.
“It is hard to find people for seasonal work,” said DeWitt. “Because most people need full-time work, and it’s hard to pay them when we’re not working in our off season. It’s hard to get qualified local people, I mean it’s not rocket science but once you get people trained they leave after the season, then next season I have to train people all over again. I was using the H-2A program but you have to apply almost a year in advance and a lot of times I don’t know what I’ll need in a year.”
DeWitt used to farm produce and tobacco, and when he did, he employed 20 full-time workers. Now he employs around five people, sometimes counting his son and daughter. Not only was it difficult to keep people employed, but the business “wasn’t as profitable as it used to be.”
Wooten said that while farmers are struggling under unfavorable circumstances, he is hopeful that reform is not far off.
“We have been encouraged by the recent bipartisan efforts in Congress to make meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform a top priority this session. Our leaders cannot miss this opportunity to fix the broken immigration system in our country. It is imperative that our elected officials understand the unique needs of today’s farming and provide a workable guest worker program that allows our farmers to maximize production. Our nation deserves high-quality, affordable, and safe food and fiber, now and in the future.”
DeWitt said he would like to see the conversation in Washington, D.C. focus on reshaping the E-Verify programs, which employers use to verify if a worker has legal status.
“We don’t have time to be a document inspector,” said DeWitt. “Someone else should make sure (the migrant workers) are legal. If they are here and are willing to work, tax them. If they are able to work, they should help the economy, not hurt it.”
Agriculture and agribusiness is the largest industry in North Carolina, accounting for $71.6 billion of the state’s economy and nearly one out of every five jobs. The North Carolina Farm Bureau is the largest agriculture organization in the state, with more than 500,000 members.
The report can be found on the North Carolina Farm Bureau website, www.ncfb.org.