Vass, NC – Every year Thanksgiving and Christmas spur sales of the humble sweet potato. Despite the challenges of finding laborers to bring in the crops, production of domestic sweet potatoes continues to rise, with North Carolina leading the way. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state led the U.S. in production in 2010, with 41% of domestic sweet potatoes, followed by California with 27% of the total. The value of production for the U.S. crop last year was just over $478 million1.
“As people have discovered the nutritional benefits of sweet potatoes, the demand has increased,” says Terrell Williams of Autryville, North Carolina. “As a farm owner, sweet potatoes can be a successful crop. The biggest challenge that I (and other owners) face is finding willing labor to bring in the crop when it’s ready. Even with the unemployment rate at the current high level, it’s incredibly difficult to find local workers willing to take a physically hard, seasonal job. We rely on the Guest Worker program and the NCGA to bring in legal workers. If this program didn’t exist, there’s a good chance the crop would rot in the fields and my farm would go under.” The production value of the sweet potato crop in North Carolina is more than $173 million.
“The NCGA was founded to try and address the labor challenges that farmers face,” says Stan Eury, Executive Director of the North Carolina Growers Association. “We hear time and again that even when offering local workers a wage of $10 or $15 an hour to harvest crops, farmers get no takers. The NCGA matches workers with farmers, obtains H2-A visas and provides transportation to and from the worker’s home country. NCGA members get legal workers who arrive ready to work.” Farmers participating in the H2-A foreign worker program are required to provide free housing and a minimum tax-free wage of $9.30/hour.
In the past, production of sweet potatoes peaked in November, in time for the holidays. This pattern has shifted over the past few years with crops timed to mature from June through November, to meet increased consumer demand. In North Carolina, the number of farms producing the crop has declined from 954 in 1992 to 389 in 2007, while the number of acres under production increased from 38,682 to 42,1082.
The North Carolina Growers Association (www.ncgrowers.org) works to address the perpetual labor shortage faced by today’s farmers. The NCGA was founded in 1991 to assist North Carolina farmers by coordinating the H2-A visa process. The Association pools applications, assists with paperwork, deals with the Federal government, help farmers understand and meet their legal requirements, and acts as mediators between the employers and employees during the growing season. This minimizes fixed program costs for farmers and downtime for workers. In 2011, over 7,000 H2-A visa holders were brought in to work on 700 farms; 90% of these workers will return to North Carolina again next year. As the nation’s largest user of the H2-A agricultural “guest worker” programs, NCGA provides members with a workforce that is legal, reliable, and ready to ensure that crops are planted, maintained, and harvested in a timely fashion. The NCGA also provides assistance to similar organizations in other states that face farm labor shortages.
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1&2 National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA