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Farm builds cropping strategy around workforce of immigrants

Finding labor for a big, diverse North Carolina farm is always problematic, says Kendall Hill of Hugo, N.C. “In my life, we have done it many different ways, and there were good points and bad points to each.”

But the alternative that he, his brother Jimmy, his son Rob and nephew Michael are using seems to be working for now: They bring in “guest workers” through the federal H2-A program. The H2-A Guest Worker program is administered by the federal government, allowing citizens of other countries to come to work legally in the United States on a temporary basis.

Employers who wish to use the guest worker program must first be certified by both the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The employer must first attempt to recruit U.S. citizens who are willing and able to perform the work they need done.

There are hoops to jump through with the program. Once the employer is certified, he must petition the U.S. Consulate to issue the H2-A visa that allows the worker to enter the country and work. The paperwork process takes approximately 60 days.

“Soon after the H2-A program started, we signed up, and that is what we have been doing ever since,” says Hill. “H2-A workers account for most of our workforce now. We have some local people that work with us on a year-round basis, but the majority of our workers are guest workers.”

The Hills contract with the North Carolina Growers Association in Vass, N.C., to facilitate their participation in the H2-A process.

“The guest worker program is a legal program that guarantees the farmer a dependable supply of labor and provides extensive protections to the worker,” says Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association. “Our growers and workers want to comply with the law, and this is the way to do it. Getting workers through this program is expensive, it is bureaucratic, and you are likely to have to spend some time in court at one point or another. But our members are committed to complying with the law, and to fixing things so that all farmers and farm workers can and will comply with law.”

Farm labor history

The Hills have a very long perspective on the subject of farm labor. Hill’s father, Tull Hill, founded this farm in 1936. Back then, there was a very different approach to recruiting labor. “We used to have entire families on the farm,” says Hill. “I remember in the ’50s, we had nine families living here that farmed with my father. They were sharecroppers, and my dad was a sharecropper also.”

In those days of big families, quite a few workers were available during the growing season. “But that number dwindled down as the people got older and their kids didn’t stay on the farm,” says Hill. “They went all over the country to cities and other places.”

As the local labor depleted, the Hills began using migrant labor crews in the early 1960s. These were Americans, usually coming from areas fairly near Hugo. That worked for a time, but then the supply of migrant labor started dwindling in the 1980s.

They tried using Mexican workers that they recruited on their own, but that was very inefficient. “There were so many I-9s [federal employment verification forms] to fill out,” Hill remembers. “If we were working 75 people, we might have 500 I-9s to deal with. It was a constant hassle.”

So by 1989, the Hills had enrolled in the H2-A program. Now, the guest workers begin arriving in February.

“We don’t bring them in all at once — it is staggered based on crop needs,” says Hill. “A few come in February, mainly to plant lettuce. Then more come every two weeks or so until we get up to the full crew we need. Usually most have arrived by early April, when we transplant tobacco. The rest are here by May 1, when we start transplanting sweet potatoes.”

As they finish the sweet potato planting, they go back to the tobacco for topping, suckering and harvesting. “Once that’s done, we harvest sweet potatoes. Most all of our H2-A workers leave around the first of November.”

Workers return

The Hills’ guest workers certainly seem to like the program. “Since 1989, we have had some people who came one year, then the next year brought their sons or brothers, and maybe the next year brought cousins. Now, in some cases, the father no longer comes but the rest of his family does.”

Sometimes when workers leave Tull Hill Farms, they leave their possessions, knowing they will be there when they come back the next year.

“They want to work, they know how to work, they know our system and they know how we want to do things. We would have a hard time getting workers like that anywhere else.”

The negative part is dealing with the bureaucracy and the government. “It takes something that could be relatively simple and makes it very hard and cumbersome,” says Hill.

The biggest problem with the guest worker program, says Hill, is the adverse wage rate — and the complexity involved in calculating it!

“Why couldn’t the wage rate just be tied to the national minimum wage, maybe $2 an hour above minimum wage?” he says. “That would be fair to the employees and the employer, and save an awful lot of office work for somebody.”

Bickers writes from Raleigh, N.C.

Creating season-long employment

The first fieldwork of the year is lettuce planting. There is a demand for the lettuce that the Hills produce, but the main reason they grow it is to create some early-season work for their employees.

Early in March, the guest workers begin transplanting lettuce plants from a greenhouse. This work lasts about 20 days, and about 50 acres are set before sweet potato planting begins.

This gives them the workers some extra work to do when they arrive, in effect lengthening the season. They go from lettuce to tobacco transplanting to sweet potato planting.

The sweet potato planting process is labor-intensive, too. The leafy parts of each plant are cut with a knife, then replanted in the field. “It takes 13,000 plants an acre, and we wear out 36 butcher knives a year,” Kendall Hill says. When it is time to harvest, the Hills turn the plants over with the plow and the workers pick them up by hand.

Tobacco production is also labor-intensive, too, and the Hills make it a little more labor-intensive than it has to be, especially at harvest. It is possible to harvest tobacco almost completely mechanically, but the Hills harvest tobacco by hand, using an old-style harvester that carries the workers around in seats at a level where they can reach out and pull the leaves off.

“It gives our workers a reason to stay here and not go somewhere else,” says Hill. “That’s an advantage of raising so many vegetable crops. We can spread our season out, so there is work for them as many days as possible. They come in to make money and want to work as many hours as they can. What we do is try to have something for them to do as long as they are here.”


06125619A.tif

many farmworkers needed: Sweet potato production requires a lot of hand labor, and many growers — like Kendall Hill of Hugo, N.C. — rely on guest workers who come in under the H2-A program.

06125619B.tif

highly regarded and healthy: Consumption of sweet potatoes has been on the rise in recent years, thanks to its nutritional and health benefits.

This article published in the August, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.