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MILLS RIVER — At the stops on a farm tour, workers toiled in the background.
Some were fulltime workers and some were part-time, and many had years of experience in the nursery, the packing houses, the farm fields and the apple orchards that the tour participants visited on a rainy Friday in April.
Most were part of the labor force from Mexico keeps the county's $400 million agricultural motor running. One takeaway from the farm tour was that a steady supply of farm labor is imperative.
"I would say Henderson County is ground zero for immigration reform," said Larry Wooten, the president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, who traveled from Raleigh for the tour. "The businesses we've seen, Van Wingerden, Flavor 1st, the apple orchards, all of these are labor intensive."
Whether it's cropping tobacco in Snow Hill or staking tomatoes in Mills River, North Carolina relies heavily on farm labor, and it's not all homegrown. In fact, most is foreign born.
"We've got $10 billion in farm gate value to protect," Wooten said. "Immediate reform at the federal level is critical for a place like Henderson County and for North Carolina. Our farmers want to be able to hire legal labor."
Farmers on the tour expressed cautious optimism that a bill introduced last week in the U.S. Senate could ensure the labor supply. North Carolina farmers are concerned that a state law enacted in 2011 requiring electronic background checks of workers will drive the labor force underground.
"We support it," Wooten said of the bill drafted by the bipartisan Gang of Eight. "Farm Bureau has been involved in what's in the bill as it relates to agriculture. We support it wholeheartedly. We just think it needs to move forward."
At the huge Flavor 1st packing operation, workers sorted and packed tomatoes by the tens of thousands. The warehouse handles about $90 million in sales and produces about $7 million in farm products locally, mostly tomatoes.
"A lot of these people are 5- to 6-year employees," said Kirby Johnson, an eighth generation farmer and co-owner of Flavor 1st. "It's one misconception by a lot of people that we get this stuff done cheap. It's not cheap, especially on the farm.
"We start out paying hourly wages but everybody that works there knows they actually get to pick those tomatoes and that's where they make their money. I've got employees that'll pick 40 to 60 (containers) of grape tomatoes at $5 each so you're looking at $250 to $300 they're making in one day. We're checked at least once a year on wage and hour, they're getting taxes taken out. It's always worked for us. We like the concept of giving them year-round work."
The farm side of the operation, known as Mountain Bean Growers Inc., farms about 1,000 acres, about half in sweet corn and half in tomatoes and other produce, and employs nearly 250 seasonal workers.
The farm tour also visited Van Wingerden International nurseries, Jason Davis's North River Farms, Super Sod, Taproot Dairy, C.L. Henderson apple orchards, Burntshirt and Saint Paul vineyards and Sandy Ridge Berry Farms.