National Journal recently visited Greenville and Spartanburg to explore the changes happening in Upstate South Carolina. In the coming weeks, Next America will publish a series of stories about the people who are shaping this conversation.
RIDGE SPRING, S.C. — In the packing shed at Titan Farms, one of the nation's largest peach growers, a Mexican flag hangs from the ceiling next to an American flag. Hundreds of workers from Mexico are measuring and sorting the peaches that tumble down a conveyor belt on their way to the loading dock. Crews fill up tractor-trailers that distribute the softball-sized peaches to Wal-Mart, Food Lion, and other national grocers.
It's July, peak of the summer harvesting season, and Chalmers Carr can't remember the last time his farm was so busy. Yet he struggles to find American workers — or anyone with a work permit — to pick his peaches. "It's just not the work most people want to do," says Carr, who owns the 5,000-acre farm near Columbia. "Have you ever tried pruning in January? That would mean holding the prune sheers at [eye level] or above your head, pruning trees for about 10 hours a day. And it could be 32 degrees outside."
Earlier this year, Carr advertised in local newspapers for 500 jobs. He got 31 applications. Most people never showed up or quit after the first day, and only six of the original applicants are still working at Titan Farms. Every American farmer faces a similar kind of labor shortage, and it's the reason Carr has become one of the agriculture industry's most vocal advocates for immigration reform.
Carr brings in about 500 seasonal workers from Mexico each year as part of the federal H-2A guest-worker program. Titan Farms pays their transportation, meals, and lodging, and a $10 hourly base salary. In an effort to follow the law, Carr says he is "trapped" in an expensive bureaucratic program that smaller growers cannot afford. Nationally, only 4 percent of agriculture workers are guest workers, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
"Once I started understanding how the guest-worker program worked and all the pitfalls, I started realizing that we needed immigration reform," says Carr.
Carr travels to Washington three to four times a year in his role as president of both the National Peach Council and USA Farmers. He's testified twice in front of the House Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee. Although his farm is nearly a two-hour drive from Greenville and Spartanburg, he's traveled there recently to meet with Rep. Trey Gowdy, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, and other Republican lawmakers.
Among other things, Carr wants a more flexible program that allows immigrants to work on farms year-round, with the chance to renew their work visas every 12 months. And he asks Congress to offer these work permits to undocumented farmworkers who currently make up most of the industry's workforce.
Carr says he's disappointed that nothing has happened yet. But he also remembers when Republicans refused to even discuss immigration reform. Now, at least they understand the issue. "It doesn't mean they've come up with a solution, but their knowledge of the situation is tenfold," says Carr, sitting behind the desk in his peach-themed office. The 46-year-old farmer has been pushing for immigration reform for more than a decade. He points to a photo on the wall of former President George W. Bush seated at a table with a group of people. "That was me at the White House," he says. "I was there with an archbishop of the Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, you name it."
Carr spent summers picking peaches with migrant workers at his uncle's farm in North Carolina when he was a boy. By the time he was 17, he had moved up to the position of farm manager. Then he got a job managing a blueberry farm while studying agricultural economics at Clemson University. In 1992, he got married, bought a farm in North Florida, and began growing peppers, vegetables, and a few varieties of peaches.
Carr, who now has two teenage children, didn't really get involved in politics until the mid 1990s, while working as a farm manager for the previous owner of what is now Titan Farms. The farm relied heavily on migrant labor, and a federal review of their employees' W-2 forms one year showed that 90 percent of the Social Security numbers didn't match up.
Although workers often presented fake papers that looked legitimate, Carr didn't want to risk breaking the law when he bought Titan Farms in 1999. "I said, no, I'm not going down the same road," he says. "That's when I went into the guest-worker program." He started that year with 125 workers from Central Mexico, and most have returned every year, living and working on the farm for up to 10 months at a time. Now the farm employs about 500 guest workers.
As Carr drives his tan Chevy SUV past tidy rows of ripening peaches, he describes how the workers have helped him grow his business and how he, in turn, has helped them earn enough money to buy houses in Mexico and put their kids through college. "They are like family," says Carr, stopping his truck along the side of the road and walking into a field of trees.
He waves down a tractor and asks the driver — in rudimentary Spanish — where the supervisor is. The driver pulls a smartphone out of his pocket and calls José MartÃn Carbal RamÃrez, who appears a few moments later wearing a baseball cap and a Bluetooth earpiece. RamÃrez has been working at Titan Farms for about 16 years, Carr says, and now oversees a harvesting crew of 60 workers, eight tractors, and two buses.
The 44-year-old native of Hidalgo, Mexico, says he supports his wife and two sons back home on his hourly wage of $10.75. He's bought a house, a car, and now pays his son's college tuition. It's a relief to be able to work legally in the United States and return home each year, he says. But it's also a sacrifice. "I left my son when he was 3, and now he's 17, 18, and I haven't watched him grow. That's the same for all these workers here," says RamÃrez.
The work is hard too, which is why RamÃrez thinks Americans don't last long on the job. Farmworkers start picking peaches at dawn and may work up to 16 hours in a day at the height of the harvesting season. "Agriculture is some of the heaviest work there is," he says. "If right now it starts to rain really hard, we have to keep working. The harvesting needs to be done. So an American can't put up with this work pace."
His employees run back and forth from the trees to the tractor, dumping bags of peaches into boxes and packing them into plastic bins. Each worker fills about 200 bags, and each tractor makes about eight trips to unload the fruit at the packing shed.
Inside the shed, Esperanza Orozco sits on a platform watching line workers sort the green bell peppers that also grow on the farm. The 44-year-old woman from Nayarit, Mexico, started picking peaches here two decades ago and now runs the farm's guest-worker program.
Orozco credits Titan Farms for helping her achieve the American dream. She was a single mother working at a furniture store in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta when she decided to look for work in the U.S. Income from the furniture store job barely covered the cost of food for her and her 3-year-old daughter. She said she remembers owning only one pair of jeans and a pair of shoes that matched everything.
"When you don't have children, that's OK. But when you have children, you know you don't want that for [them]," she says, holding back tears. Her daughter is now an architect and just started her own architecture firm, she adds with pride.
Orozco lives on the farm with the other workers, who often line up to call relatives via Skype on one of the computers Carr provides in the break room. Sometimes they drive into town to go to the grocery store or run errands. Orozco said it frustrates her that people assume they are all "illegals," especially because Carr works so hard to do everything by the book. "He cares for the workers; he follows the law," says Orozco. "He deserves help for whatever he is fighting for."
Carr meets with Orozco and the other workers every few months to update them on the prospects of immigration reform. Right now, he's not feeling very optimistic. "I'm never going to give up hope, but I think our opportunities for getting immigration reform done under this Congress are very bleak," he says.