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Female H-2A workers do the sorting at Titan Farms, enforcing a high quality standard that assures loads won't be rejected.

Female H-2A workers do the sorting at Titan Farms, enforcing a high quality standard that assures loads won’t be rejected.

Richard Lehnert

Titan Farms has used H-2A foreign guest workers for 13 years, but rule changes to the program this year have been troublesome.   

In 2010, growers paid $7.25 an hour to hire H-2A workers, and that was based on prevailing wages in similar jobs in the fruit industry in South Carolina and Georgia. Last year, the rules were changed to base the rate on wages paid in all agricultural jobs in a three-state region.
“We’ve still got to figure out a fairer way to do it, but this is unrealistic. And they think it’s going to encourage more Americans to work, but it doesn’t,” said Chalmers Carr III.

“The new higher wage rate does encourage more local workers to apply, but nobody stays,” he said. “Since last November, we hired over 213 local workers who applied for jobs, and only two are still here on the farm. Some ­didn’t make it eight hours. Most of them quit. Maybe 10 to 20 percent were dismissed for production reasons; they couldn’t keep up.

“We certainly can’t get the job done hiring local workers. This is our thirteenth year hiring H-2A workers, and while it’s expensive, it works well for us. Hiring local workers involves more staff, more paperwork, and more training, but we don’t get more workers. While the intentions were good, it didn’t work.”

Under H-2A rules, workers can be brought into the country for ten months at most. “We try to give all our workers seven to nine months of work,” he said. While harvest season requires the most labor, Carr puts together a work package, combining peaches and vegetables, that carries some workers through ten months.

Chalmers finds the H-2A workers dedicated to performing a quality job for the company and earning money for their families, so they work quickly and efficiently, and come back year after year. Good training and housing become a good investment.

He provides on-site housing in camps for workers and has been experimenting with configuration. Some house three workers per room and had 13 bedrooms, but that puts a huge strain on kitchen facilities. His newer units house 16 workers in four bedrooms, relieving pressure on kitchen facilities. “Labor for us is the key,” Carr said. “We have central heat and air in every camp we have, and we have reduced occupancy in all our camps in an effort to make the environment after hours more pleasing for our employees.”

Titan Farms provides shopping opportunities for workers. Every weekend, they board a bus for a shopping center about 13 miles away, usually Walmart, where they spend about four hours shopping, doing their laundry, and taking care of other needs.