By Margaret O’shea | [url=http://www.timesanddemocrat.com]http://www.timesanddemocrat.com[/url]
When Chris Rawl was growing up in Lexington County South Carolina, he and his high school friends never had to look for jobs. There was plenty of planting, picking and packing to do on the Rawl family’s farm.
There still is, but agricultural jobs are not as easy to “farm out” locally as they used to be. Few local teens or adults apply these days. So for the past 14 years, Rawl has relied heavily on Hispanic workers to tend and harvest 2,000 acres of vegetables sold at Columbia and Atlanta farmer’s markets and in chain groceries. He is the third generation to run the farm and the first who found it necessary to know the Spanish words for all his crops, and the tasks it takes to raise and get them to market.
“Without them, we wouldn’t be able to produce,” he says of the shift to primarily Hispanic workers.
In summer, peak season for most vegetables, Rawl employs as many as 120 Hispanic workers. In winter, he employs about 50. Some are migrants. Some work a few months, go home to Mexico and return when they are ready. Others live in Lexington County, since year-round jobs are available on the farm. Although 80 percent live on Rawl’s property in housing that he provides, others own their homes. They pay taxes, and they pump money into the local economy. From Rawl’s perspective, they are “living the American dream,” earning enough to support themselves and often sending money to relatives in Mexico as well - one of the services offered by the increasing number of businesses that cater to Hispanics.
There is, after all, a reason so many establishments advertise “Se babla Espanol.” Part of it is a prevalent work ethic among Hispanics who come to this country. Clinton Sease, who raises vegetables and ornaments on a farm near Rawl’s where everything is harvested by hand, says of Hispanic workers: “They are disappointed when they don’t get seven days of work. They want to earn as much money as they can, and they have a positive impact on the area. They make a lot of money here and they spend it locally.”
Nor does Sease have to beat the bushes for help. Word gets around about where the work is, and applicants show up asking for it.
“For them, a good work week is 60 to 80 hours, about like mine,” says Rawl, whose operation was named last year as South Carolina’s top Farm Bureau Young Farm and Ranch Family and was first runner-up in the national competition. “They don’t understand why most Americans expect to work only 40 hours.”
To understand that mindset, it’s important to remember the impoverished conditions Hispanics have left behind.
Ramiro Capistran, who oversees labor and farm production at Stacy’s Greenhouses in York, explains it from his own experience. He was 7 years old when he started hauling milk from one village to another in Mexico. He was 13 when he first worked in orange groves in the United States and 16 when he was on his own, drifting back and forth across the border. His family was in Mexico, but jobs were in this country. Opportunity was here. Capistran sees a little of himself in the 300 employees, mostly Hispanic, he deals with at the greenhouses. And he sees himself in those he assists as a member of the South Carolina Migrant Labor Commission, seeking to assure good working conditions and medical care.
“You can go and see for yourself,” says Capistran, who does the hiring at Stacy’s. About 95 percent of the workers are Hispanic, and “I can count on my fingers the Americans who apply.”
Chalmers Carr first arrived at Titan Peach Farms, which he now owns, in 1995. That year, more than 300 area high school students applied for work in the packing shed. Within three years, that number fell to 75. Carr says it’s easy to generalize about the reason for the decline, blaming youth today for being lazy and spoiled. It might even be tempting to quip that people no longer want to work in fields or orchards because they’re not air-conditioned. But Carr concedes it’s more complicated than that. Parents want their children to have easier lives than they did, and the prevalent belief in American society today is that education is the key to that kind of future. Pressure on schools to succeed and on individual students to succeed literally means that “kids don’t have time to work.” And as technology advances, cities grow, and more families become removed from their rural roots, fewer youths who do want work even consider agricultural jobs.
The peach industry was hard hit by the dwindling supply of young workers, because it also had been targeted by the U.S. Department of Labor in the 1990s. The DOL was cracking down on practices by some unscrupulous crew leaders who were exploiting migrant workers brought in from Florida or Texas. Putting those people out of business caused yet another traditional labor pool to go shallow. But the need for workers did not change. Not did an essential job requirement: “It takes hard workers, because there is hard work to do,” as Carr puts it. And it takes a lot of them.
Carr raises 46 varieties of peaches on 2,400 acres near Ridge Spring, which sits in the heart of what’s known simply as “The Ridge,” a small cluster of South Carolina counties that raise more peaches than the entire state of Georgia, despite its claim to being “the peach state.” On Titan Peach Farms alone, because so many varieties are grown, harvest stretches from mid-May through September. It takes 340 seasonal workers to get the job done, and Carr employs one of the largest Hispanic work forces in the Southeast.
For the past six years, Carr has participated in the federal H2A “guest worker” program to meet that demand. Out of 1,800 job offerings in that time, he’s had only 18 U.S. referrals. Four of those were this year, and those four never showed up for work. He calculates that less than 1 percent of his labor needs would have been met without the Hispanic work force.
The federal program has its share of detractors, and some growers who use Hispanic laborers steer clear of it. One factor in that debate is the government’s philosophy that “guest workers” who do not receive tax-funded services do not need to pay taxes. Where the factions do agree is that much of this country’s agricultural output is dependent on a work force that is not home grown.
Mike Keisler, who grows peaches, strawberries and vegetables in Lexington County, has been using Hispanic labor nearly 20 years, and he has no patience with people who say those jobs ought to be going to local people. “Some things people just don’t understand,” says Keisler, a past member of the Farm Bureau Executive Committee. “It’s not as simple as people want it to be.”
Not only is a local work force less available than it used to be, but there’s another problem with it. Except for people who grew up on farms with a lifelong value of hard work and knowledge of what it takes to get a crop to market, local hires often are less efficient. “If that labor force was still there, and if I could still hire local people, it would cost me more to do it,” Keisler says. Not that farmers don’t pay decent wages. They do. Otherwise, their workers would leave. It’s a matter of simple math. People who get more done in one hour are cost-effective. And when those same people are willing and eager to work long hours, fewer have to be hired.
Watson Dorn, who owns Hickory Hill Dairy Farm in Saluda, was surprised to hear that Hispanics are now milking about 75 percent of America’s cows. He milks 300 at Hickory Hill and presently employs only one Hispanic helper, Isaia Ortiz-Neves, who hopes to become an American citizen.
Dorn first began hiring Hispanics 16 years ago, and Ortiz-Neves is a daily reminder of how times have changed so rapidly. Dorn originally had to provide housing for Hispanic workers because none was available locally. Ortiz-Neves and his wife live in Saluda, where there is now a thriving housing market for Hispanic residents attracted there by a unique set of circumstances.
Putting down roots
In addition to local farms with labor needs, Saluda is within easy driving distance of at least six processing plants for poultry, pork and beef. And the construction industry is attracting Hispanic workers as well. Because of the influx, the area has several food stores and other businesses that cater to Hispanic customers, as well as three Hispanic churches.
Saluda is just one of the South Carolina communities that has become a comfortable place to call home for Hispanic workers who want to put down new roots. Aiken is another, and it includes an entire neighborhood of people who came from the same village in Mexico and heard about jobs in the horse industry by word of mouth.
While there are still plenty of migrant workers who simply pass through the state, the resident Hispanic population is growing fast. U.S. Census Bureau figures showed South Carolina’s Hispanic population in 1990 was 30,551 or .9 percent of the state’s population. In that one decade, the Hispanic population more than tripled. By 2002, Hispanics had surpassed African-Americans as the nation’s largest minority group, and census projections are that the Hispanic population will triple nationwide by 2050.
The numbers have names. Ramiro Capistran decided it was time to settle down when his oldest son started school. It was important to him, he said, that all his children were born in America, where he had a chance to ensure that their lives were better than his was at their age. A legal resident since 1982, he is preparing now to seek citizenship. Isaia Ortiz-Neves made his decision when he realized how much at home he felt in the community where he found work on a dairy farm.
Others gradually realize they have already settled in, whether they meant to or not. Rawl said he has workers who have been with him since he started hiring Hispanics. When he offers year-round jobs, they are happy to have them, eager to be firmly planted in rich Lexington County soil.
It’s not necessarily the direction Rawl expected his family farm to take when he and his high school buddies were staples in the work force, but “the time is gone when you could run a farm with family and friends and survive.”
This story by Margaret O’shea is reprinted with permission from the summer 2004 edition of “South Carolina Farmer,” the magazine of the S.C. Farm Bureau Federation.