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Farmers appeal to Hagan for help on labor issue

Kay Hagan listens to apple farmers Danny McConnell, left, and Kenny Barnwell. Kay Hagan listens to apple farmers Danny McConnell, left, and Kenny Barnwell.

Awaiting U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan's arrival in Hendersonville last week, Mark Williams, the county's Agribusiness Development director, received an email that perfectly supported the message he and other farming advocates wanted Hagan to hear.


Steve Dalton, a young blackberry farmer who had finished a successful 2012 season, has been looking at whether to expand his acreage of berries while demand and prices are high.
"Personally, I am holding back on large step expansion because of the fear of being able to hire workers who can adequately and with cost effectiveness perform the tasks associated with fruit production," Dalton said.
There in a nutshell was the problem that farmers across Henderson County are facing. The lack of a national immigration reform bill and a state law coming next summer have left farmers with grave doubts about whether they will have enough labor to pick apples, prune orchards and work in greenhouses.
"It's a talking session and we've been working with Freddie (Harrill, Hagan's WNC aide) and he's always been very responsive," said Marvin Owings, the director of the Henderson County Cooperative Extension office. "Any chance that we have to talk with her face to face and discuss grower issues is a great opportunity. I'm thinking the top two topics will be labor and crop insurance."
He was right.
Apple farmer Kenny Barnwell, apple, strawberry and produce grower Danny McConnell, Bert Lemkes, co-owner and general manager of the Van Wingerden wholesale nursery in Mills River, Liz Taylor, a crop insurance specialist with Morrow Insurance Co., Williams and Owings were all seated at the first table Hagan visited.
Farmers are frustrated with new rules imposed by the federal Risk Management Agency under the USDA.
"They put us under a new apple policy in 2011," Taylor said. "They've gone way beyond what farmers have ever been required to do before. So a lot of our farmers got denied."
Williams was ready to tell the senator the story he had just received from Dalton.
"That's one of many" cases of farmers holding back on expansion for fear that the migrant labor force will dry up. "That kind of story I try to get across from an economic development side. We are poised to grow like crazy" but hampered by the immigration law uncertainty."
A state law that goes into effect next June will require farm hires to go through the E-verify system before they can legally work. Henderson County farmers along with many across the state are lobbying for an exemption that would allow farmworkers to receive agriculture work visas even if they're here illegally.
Hagan's stop in Hendersonville last week marked the 86th county she has visited in her "listening tour" to all 100 counties. She will make her 100th stop next week when she visits Dunn in Harnett County.
Her service in the Senate is "unbelievably frustrating" because of the partisanship, she said. "It's not a way to advance legislation and get something done."