The Value of Farm Labor

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Agriculture is the number one industry in North Carolina. The farm and associated agribusiness industry combined pump more than $71 billion into the economy of North Carolina annually.

That is an impressive figure, no doubt. Of that total, an important number to consider is the farm gate value. North Carolina’s farm gate value is nearly $10 billion of the total $71.6 billion that agriculture and agribusiness contribute to the state’s economy.

Of the $10 billion farm gate value, $2 billion is attributed to four commodities:
• Agricultural nursery and greenhouse;
• Christmas trees;
• Fruits and vegetables;
• Tobacco.

What is the common need among these four commodities? The answer is a legal, stable and reliable source of farm labor. In today’s political environment, it is impossible to talk about our need for farm labor without discussing the need to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.

Almost everyone knows how controversial this discussion can become in all of our states. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have said it best when speaking at Duke University, “I don’t know when immigrants became the enemy in this country.”

Yet, the importance of immigrant labor to our economy is evident.

Each of the 1.6 million farm employees hired to work on American farms supports two to three full-time jobs further down the value chain in the food processing, transportation, farm equipment, marketing retail and other sectors.
Another vital fact to consider is that we’re not just talking about farming when we discuss labor. The need for competent and qualified workers encompasses more than the agricultural industry alone.

The federal government’s H-1b program, for example, places highly skilled and trained professionals who come to the United States. These workers are bumping up against a cap, creating a shortage within this educated work force.

Of the top 200 employers of the H-1b guest worker program, 25 have locations right here in North Carolina. Some of those businesses include the following:

  • Caterpillar
  • Cisco
  • CVS Pharmacy
  • Duke University Medical Center
  • Google
  • IBM
  • UNC-Chapel Hill

The failure to act on immigration reform impacts more than just the farming and agricultural industry.

Already regulations are impacting the everyday operations of farmers in the four labor-intensive sectors mentioned previously. The E-verify system requires business operators with a certain number of employees to access a federal government database to determine employment eligibility of applicants. To put it simply, E-verify has already become a game-changer.

The whole E-verify issue has only heightened the pressure on an already difficult situation. The E-verify regulation impacts more than just seasonal labor. It impacts farm employers who hire year-round labor, as well.

The owner of a large greenhouse operation in North Carolina was recently asked how E-verify works for him and he replied, “Those who are willing to do the work, fail the system, but those who pass the system, fail to do the work.”

Farm Bureau is working feverishly with our legislative leadership in North Carolina to prevent passage of any type of punitive immigration legislation that impacts the farm. Your Farm Bureau is also working tirelessly with federal lawmakers to help them reach a workable solution.

Immigration is clearly a federal issue, and a national fix is urgently needed for all Americans and North Carolinians.

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