Farmworkers play a vital role in cultivating the food we eat everyday, and North Carolina has one of the largest farmworker populations in the nation. Even though 85% of our fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand, farmworkers remain largely invisible.
Overview of Farm Work
Agricultural labor includes planting, cultivating, harvesting and preparing crops for market or storage. Migrant farmworkers travel from place to place to work in agriculture and move into temporary housing while working; seasonal farmworkers work primarily in agriculture, but live in one community year-round.
Farmworkers are usually employed by farm owners or by “crew leaders,” who serve as intermediaries between growers and workers. The H2A program allows foreign “guestworkers” to perform seasonal farm work under a temporary work visa designed for agricultural workers in the United States.
Demographics of North Carolina Farmworkers
North Carolina ranks 6th in the nation in the number of migrant farmworkers. There are approximately 150,000 farmworkers and their dependents in North Carolina each growing season, but this estimate is considered low. In the United States there are 2-3 million farmworkers. Even though the overall number of farmworkers in North Carolina has decreased over the last 20 years, the number of migrant farmworkers has nearly doubled.
94 percent of migrant farmworkers in North Carolina are native Spanish speakers. Nationally, most farmworkers are unaccompanied males whose families still live in their home countries.
The US Department of Labor reports that 53% of farmworkers nationally are undocumented (working without legal authorization), 25% are US citizens, and 21% are legal permanent residents.
Farmworkers’ Impact on North Carolina
Agriculture, including food, fiber and forestry, contributes over $10 billion annually to North Carolina’s economy and represents 22% of North Carolina’s income. Each farmworker’s labor contributes over $12,000 in profits to North Carolina’s economy annually.
Major North Carolina crops requiring hand labor include: tobacco, Christmas trees, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, apples, bell peppers, and other fruits and vegetables. Many farmworkers also work in greenhouses and nurseries.
Poverty: Nationally, farmworkers’ average annual income is $11,000; for a family it is approximately $16,000. Farmworkers on the East Coast earn about 35% less than the national average.
Hard work, low pay: At 40¢ per bucket (5/8 bushel), a farmworker must pick and haul two tons of sweet potatoes to earn $50.
Few wage protections: Most farmworkers are exempt from minimum wage laws, and all are exempt from overtime provisions, despite long work days during peak harvest.
Few benefits: Despite pervasive poverty, less than 1 percent of farmworkers collect general assistance welfare nationwide. Only 10 percent of farmworkers report having health insurance through an employer health plan. Fewer than 4 out of 10 workers interviewed said that they would receive unemployment benefits if out of work.
Hunger: Nearly 5 out of 10 North Carolina farmworkers cannot afford enough food for themselves and their families.