As part of a four-day, 12-county farm listening tour, Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith (Rep.) finished his tour with a stop in Carroll County at Virginia Produce at Alan Worrell’s farm in Laurel.
At Virginia Produce, Griffith was met by a host of local farmers who expressed their concerns over a wide range of topics, including the Government H2A Program, death taxes, and food safety. Perhaps the most important topic with area farmers was simply making sure the government realizes Southwest Virginia is still part of Virginia.
“We do have a lot of product in this area and Food City is about the only chain supporting us in Virginia. We are kind of taking the back seat to Northern Virginia,” Virginia Produce owner Moir Beamer said. “Northern Virginia comes first and we are last. Virginia stops at Roanoke. We are not set up for everything going to Tidewater. That is something we need to address. We are not in Tidewater, but we are just as strong in agriculture as they are.”
While Food City supports this area tremendously, Beamer said, it is the only chain doing so. He wants to see this area of the state recognized as the rest of the state. That area is obviously lacking, Beamer said, noting a recent agriculture meeting he attended in Richmond.
“They showed a picture of the state of Virginia and it was cut off at Blacksburg,” Beamer said. “It was in Richmond to show where we are growing produce in the state, and our end wasn’t even on the map. That is what we are battling.”
Upon Griffith’s arrival, Beamer introduced him to local farmers such as James Light, J.C. Banks and Johnny Wishon. Travis Bunn, a pumpkin farmer and extension agent for Carroll and Patrick counties, also attended the session with a handful of other farmers.
Beamer said this area continues to play second-fiddle to Tidewater in agriculture.
“We go to meetings and they will say, ‘We will support Southwest Virginia if we can’t sell it in Tidewater.’ It’s real hard for me to come back and tell our farmers I can move it if they have a hurricane or bad weather in Tidewater,” Beamer told Griffith. “We need the same support they get.”
With Carroll farmers having good luck with Food City, Griffith asked if area farmers had many dealings with Kroger. Beamer replied that local farmers are loyal to Food City because the company has been so loyal to local farmers. Unless the product is shipped out of the area, local farmers will stay loyal to Food City in most cases.
“Getting our product in Food City is tremendous. They want to help us, so we want to help them,” Light added. “But it is when we try to sell toward Norfolk, Richmond — it is harder up there.”
Beamer noted Light has sent a lot of his locally-grown broccoli to Food City. About the time Light pitched the idea to the company, the price of fuel started to skyrocket, making it much cheaper to get locally as opposed to having it shipped from California as the company used to do. Beamer added that broccoli production in Carroll has grown from eight acres per year to nearly 150 acres per year over the past six to seven years.
“You must be doing a pretty good job,” Griffith said. “Food City can’t put a product on the shelf that’s not equal to or better than its competitors.”
The talk then turned to Virginia’s Farm Bill and death taxes. Griffith said unfortunately Congress probably wouldn’t get an answer on either subject until after the November election. Light said death taxes are a huge deal, and can be extremely detrimental for farm families.
“That’s big. Most farmers don’t have much money, but when you look at their net assets, which is what they base it on, it makes it look different,” Light said. “It can really break a family farm up to pay the inheritance tax.”
Griffith said the good news about death taxes is he does believe some concessions will be made on the matter after the November election.
Light said crop insurance is another important matter for farmers. Light said for his broccoli and Banks’ cabbage, you are talking about an investment of between $5,000 to $6,000 per acre.
“I think it’s important we get the insurance program fixed. There needs to be a safety net for farmers,” Griffith said. “We’ll look at the Farm Bill. It is a moving target, so much that they couldn’t get it finalized and we ended up with a one-year deal. It may come to have an extension to end the year. Hopefully we can get a farm bill and one soon. That is our goal. People look at we are spending billions of dollars for agriculture, but they don’t realize that 80 percent of it is in the Food Stamp Programs.”
The attention then turned to the government H-2A program that allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. To qualify for H-2A nonimmigrant classification, the petitioner must offer a job that is of a temporary or seasonal nature, demonstrate that there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work, and show that the employment of H-2A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.
“I don’t have a fix,” Griffith said when asked about the H-2A program. “Clearly it is broken.”
What hurts Southwest Virginia farmers, Beamer said, is farmers in Virginia have to pay workers one price, while regulations aren’t as strict in other neighboring states Virginia competes against. Light said the current adversely affected wage for the program is $9.70 an hour.
“You have to question the 34 hours of work and pay them $9.70 an hour, and you have to continue that even if you don’t have good weather or other circumstances,” Griffith said. “When it is a labor intensive area, either you can’t find people willing to do the work or they won’t pass a drug screen.”
Light said one of the biggest problems is he may only need eight people for a season, but the government could send him 16. He still has to pay for it regardless. Wishon then told what he called a horror story related to the H-2A program.
“They send you anybody. I’ve had convicted felons and registered sex offenders with a rap sheet 12 pages long, and I am supposed to hire them at my home. My wife and kids are 200 yards away,” Wishon said. “I called and told them I was not hiring them when I have a wife and kids 200 yards away. I can’t think of another industry that gets told who you have to hire. That is what’s broken with H-2A.”
Griffith agreed, noting that many of the workers in the program don’t show up on time, if they show at all. Additionally, Beamer said an uneven playing field regionally hurts Southwest Virginia farmers.
“Our farmers have to pay more. We need everybody on the same scale in Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, all across the region,” Beamer said. “We have to pay $1.50 to $2 more on H-2A and yet we are expected to compete with those other states. That is a major problem.”
Griffith said learning about the experiences of farmers is very beneficial to him.
“We’re in each county once a month. If there is a bill or something that affects you, we want to know what you think about it,” Griffith said. “Your thoughts on a big bill like the Farm Bill would be very helpful to me.”
Light offered a simple suggestion for the Congressman to send back to Washington.
“Get rid of some of the regulations and just let us work,” Light said.
Beamer then showed the Congressman a pallet of beans that had just arrived at the warehouse from Alan Worrell’s farm to demonstrate the level of quality Carroll County provides its customers.
“These were picked today and they will be shipped in the morning to Food City,” Beamer said. “That’s the kind of freshness we provide in that short of an amount of time.”