MILLS RIVER — A carpet of red, yellow, purple, blue, pink and green spread in every direction as far as Mark Meadows could see. A cold rain pelted the roof but in a few weeks' time, the plants and flowers under 37 acres of greenhouse roof will be in big stores and smaller nurseries up to 350 miles from their Mills River birthplace.
For Bert Lemkes, the co-owner of the Van Wingerden operation, it's all about jobs, which was why he was leading the freshman 11th District congressman on a tour of the greenhouses on Jeffress Road. Lemkes' partner, Kelly Cantrell, who married founder Art Wingerden's daughter Tina, looked at the colorful blanket of flowering plants and saw a huge job of sorting, loading and shipping.
"Holes," he said, referring to vacant floor space, of which there was none. "You wanna see holes. It's pretty but it's not good."
Workers, at least a third of them Hispanic, were busy driving four-wheelers that towed carts, loading carts and using a hooked pole to lower hanging baskets to waiting loaders. Nearly all the work has to be done by hand, and not all the hands belong to U.S. citizens. Here, at the tangled intersection of commerce and politics, Meadows could see the future of Henderson County's green industry and its apple orchards and vegetable fields.
Farmers in Henderson County, Meadows told a Chamber of Commerce audience an hour earlier, have shaped his views on farm labor. Conversations with Lemkes, Henderson County agriculture development director Mark Williams and apple growers have helped form a proposed solution.
"We've got immigration policy that has its genesis here in this district that's being discussed this week" in Congress, he told the chamber breakfast at the Hendersonville Country Club.
He acknowledged that his position has evolved, incrementally and pragmatically, in response to local farmers' needs and frustrations.
"Where we're at on immigration is not where I started campaigning on," he said. "I started campaigning on an issue where I said we've got to close our borders, we've got to protect our borders, and I think part of any immigration policy is that we have to do that. We have to make sure that our borders are secure and that they're protected.
"But the second part of that is, I think back and I said, we'll just modify the H2A visa program, and that was a non-starter. I met with farmers and people here and they said, there's a real problem, and they started sharing some of the problems with a government-run program — surprise, surprise, there's a problem with a government-run program.
"You could have a hole in your screen the size of the end of my pinky in the housing that you provide for those folks and you could have a violation under that H2A visa program that would require a fine. I live in a pretty nice home and I can tell you my home would be subject to a fine if I had H2A visa folks.
"So what we did is we started working with a lot of the local growers and the Farm Bureau to try to come up with a plan that says, How do you protect American jobs, how do we not have a path to amnesty, because a lot of them are here as undocumented workers, they should not go ahead of those who are waiting in line to become citizens."
Meadows has endorsed a Farm Bureau plan that allowed undocumented to work on farms, without setting up a path to citizenship.
It's a myth, Meadows said, that American families will raise children today to become farm laborers.
"I grew up very poor and one summer I picked tomatoes until I saw tomatoes in my dreams," he said. "There's no harder work but there was no greater motivation for me to make sure that I didn't do that for a living the rest of my life either. We somehow think that we're going to raise up, and change the thinking of our children and say we want you to grow up where you can pick apples, and that just doesn't happen."
During his walk through the greenhouse operation in Mills River, Meadows heard from Lemkes that things are getting worse, not better.
"The government," Meadows said, "just sent out a 75-page guideline on how to fill out a two-page I-9 form."
Williams took a call on his cell phone from Edneyville apple grower Kenny Barnwell, who passed along his regards to the congressman.
"He didn't realize," Meadows said, "that that small little group we got together would get national recognition."
Meadows said he's cautiously optimistic that a bill coming out of the Senate this week could be a vehicle to pass immigration reform.
Williams, who talks daily to Lemkes and other farm leaders about the issue and reads a half dozen articles a day about the policy proposals, said Meadows has been receptive.
"He sees the need and he supports a very middle-of-the-road approach that should satisfy both sides of the issue," he said, "and that specifically addresses the needs in labor for agriculture."
The human labor amid that vast carpet of color told the story.
"They've got 450 employees," Meadows said. "There's nothing that can be automated here. It's physical labor. What's exciting is not only is it making a profit but it's growing and it's providing real jobs. Bert said the starting pay here was $9.25 an hour. For those who say, well, it's all about cheap labor, that shows it's not."
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