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For the last two decades, the number of tobacco farms in Taylor County has steadily decreased. But for the 150 or so tobacco farmers remaining, finding workers to cut and house this season’s predicted 2,500 pounds of tobacco has been a labor in itself.
According to Pat Hardesty, Taylor County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, this year’s tobacco is one of the better yielding crops Taylor County has had in a while.
Hardesty said the usual abundance of migrant workers has dwindled due to there not being enough farms remaining to keep migrant workers employed for very long.
“Some of our smaller producers have been waiting on crews or they’ve been trying to get local help, which is very difficult,” Hardesty said. “That’s why the migrants are here, because we can’t get enough local labor to get the crop in.” In years past, Hardesty said, groups of migrant workers would come into the county and by word-of-mouth, would move from farm to farm, quickly cutting and housing the tobacco by the end of September, and well before the first frost.
Now in October, the threat of frost constantly looms. Hardesty said that frost was in the weather forecast for this morning.
“Chances are, we’re going to have quite a bit of tobacco get frosted on because of not being able to get it cut and housed,” Hardesty said. “That can reduce quality of the crop, and they recommend waiting about three days after a frost before going in and harvesting.”
Local farmer Aaron Newcome said he and his business partner, Kyle Lee, are worried that some of their 115 acres of tobacco may not get cut and housed in the barn in time.
“I think everybody’s having the same problem,” Newcome said. “This is the first time that I’m hiring all local help.”
Newcome said finding steady local help this year has been difficult. On any given day, he has no idea how many workers will show up or how long they will stay.
One option available to farmers is the H-2A Visa program, which allows people to legally enter the United States temporarily for agricultural work. However, Hardesty said that the farmer has to pay for the transportation to get them here, in addition to providing housing and guaranteeing them so many hours. In the end, he said, it is the equivalent of paying someone 15 dollars an hour. And because it is so expensive, most independent producers cannot afford it.
Hardesty was quick to dispel a common concern that migrant workers take jobs away from Americans. “With some industries, there may be some migrant laborers that are taking jobs away from Americans, but with tobacco, that’s not been the case,” Hardesty said. “I promise you, if a tobacco producer here in Taylor County could get local, dependable help, there wouldn’t be migrants here.”
Although it would mean a smaller profit margin next year, Newcome said that he will probably have no choice but to arrange for H-2A workers.
“The days of the smaller farmer are kind of out,” Newcome said. “You either raise a lot or none at all.”