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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Elected leaders ignore farmers' biggest concern

A farm laborer picks apples at an orchard in Dana. A farm laborer picks apples at an orchard in Dana.

By most accounts, Henderson County's 2014 apple crop is high in quality and lower in quantity.

 


A shorter crop is not necessarily a bad thing. Last year, despite record rainfall that ruined most of the sweet corn and produce in the French Broad Valley, apple farmers harvested a bumper crop. And not just in Henderson County. It was a big year up and down the East Coast. When all the apples came off the trees, the market was flooded with cheap fruit.
"We had two extreme variables last year," recalled Edneyville grower Jerred Nix. "We had 45-cent Galas early and a half-a-cent juice at the end of the year."
In Tree to Table, our ongoing series about this year's growing season, we have tried to chronicle the trials and the triumphs of the apple industry in Henderson County.
There is plenty to celebrate. Growers are becoming more innovative. The focus on healthier eating has made moms choose an apple as a kids' snack instead of a candy bar or bag of chips. We grow quality apples. Our packers are busy.
Tree2Table sigBut all is not well in the $30 million apple industry, or in the ornamental horticulture industry, which is worth about $10 million more.
"Labor is our biggest problem," Nix said in Part 2 of our series. "It don't matter if I can grow a million dollars worth of fruit. If I can't get it picked, I ain't got nothing. It's like I told the (N.C. State) deans, we've got to have the labor force."
Kenny Barnwell, who is being honored this year as the grand marshal of the King Apple Parade, has fought for immigration reform for years.
Apple growers, vegetable farmers and nursery operators scoff at the myth that American citizens can do the farm and packinghouse work. Workers unaccustomed to farm labor generally don't return for a second day on the job — if they make it past dinner break the first day. Besides, our farmworkers have years of experience in pruning, grafting, spraying, picking and grading — skills that are unappreciated.
"We've got to import our food or we've got to import our workers," Barnwell says. "Personally I'd rather import my workers and know where my food's grown."
Congress ought to do more to solve this problem — much more. Maybe our political leaders will get to it after the election. Our economic future and our food supply depend on it.