Do You Like Peaches? Then This South Carolina Farmer Suggests You Like Immigration Reform, Too.

The 500 Mexican workers who make Titan Farms possible must return over the border at the end of every growing season.

A guest worker from Mexico sorts peaches at Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, South Carolina. The farm's owner, Chalmers Carr, has been traveling to Washington to urge lawmakers to pass immigration reform.
National Journal
Alexia Fernández Campbell and Reena Flores
July 18, 2014, 6:40 a.m.

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited Green­ville and Spartan­burg to ex­plore the changes hap­pen­ing in Up­state South Car­o­lina. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about the people who are shap­ing this con­ver­sa­tion.

RIDGE SPRING, S.C. — In the pack­ing shed at Ti­tan Farms, one of the na­tion’s largest peach grow­ers, a Mex­ic­an flag hangs from the ceil­ing next to an Amer­ic­an flag. Hun­dreds of work­ers from Mex­ico are meas­ur­ing and sort­ing the peaches that tumble down a con­vey­or belt on their way to the load­ing dock. Crews fill up tract­or-trail­ers that dis­trib­ute the soft­ball-sized peaches to Wal-Mart, Food Li­on, and oth­er na­tion­al gro­cers.

It’s Ju­ly, peak of the sum­mer har­vest­ing sea­son, and Chalmers Carr can’t re­mem­ber the last time his farm was so busy. Yet he struggles to find Amer­ic­an work­ers — or any­one with a work per­mit — to pick his peaches. “It’s just not the work most people want to do,” says Carr, who owns the 5,000-acre farm near Columbia. “Have you ever tried prun­ing in Janu­ary? That would mean hold­ing the prune sheers at [eye level] or above your head, prun­ing trees for about 10 hours a day. And it could be 32 de­grees out­side.”

Earli­er this year, Carr ad­vert­ised in loc­al news­pa­pers for 500 jobs. He got 31 ap­plic­a­tions. Most people nev­er showed up or quit after the first day, and only six of the ori­gin­al ap­plic­ants are still work­ing at Ti­tan Farms. Every Amer­ic­an farm­er faces a sim­il­ar kind of labor short­age, and it’s the reas­on Carr has be­come one of the ag­ri­cul­ture in­dustry’s most vo­cal ad­voc­ates for im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

Carr brings in about 500 sea­son­al work­ers from Mex­ico each year as part of the fed­er­al H-2A guest-work­er pro­gram. Ti­tan Farms pays their trans­port­a­tion, meals, and lodging, and a $10 hourly base salary. In an ef­fort to fol­low the law, Carr says he is “trapped” in an ex­pens­ive bur­eau­crat­ic pro­gram that smal­ler grow­ers can­not af­ford. Na­tion­ally, only 4 per­cent of ag­ri­cul­ture work­ers are guest work­ers, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­ic­an Farm Bur­eau Fed­er­a­tion.

“Once I star­ted un­der­stand­ing how the guest-work­er pro­gram worked and all the pit­falls, I star­ted real­iz­ing that we needed im­mig­ra­tion re­form,” says Carr.

Carr travels to Wash­ing­ton three to four times a year in his role as pres­id­ent of both the Na­tion­al Peach Coun­cil and USA Farm­ers. He’s test­i­fied twice in front of the House Im­mig­ra­tion and Bor­der Se­cur­ity Sub­com­mit­tee. Al­though his farm is nearly a two-hour drive from Green­ville and Spartan­burg, he’s traveled there re­cently to meet with Rep. Trey Gowdy, Rep. Mick Mul­vaney, and oth­er Re­pub­lic­an law­makers.

Among oth­er things, Carr wants a more flex­ible pro­gram that al­lows im­mig­rants to work on farms year-round, with the chance to re­new their work visas every 12 months. And he asks Con­gress to of­fer these work per­mits to un­doc­u­mented farm­work­ers who cur­rently make up most of the in­dustry’s work­force.

Carr says he’s dis­ap­poin­ted that noth­ing has happened yet. But he also re­mem­bers when Re­pub­lic­ans re­fused to even dis­cuss im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Now, at least they un­der­stand the is­sue. “It doesn’t mean they’ve come up with a solu­tion, but their know­ledge of the situ­ation is ten­fold,” says Carr, sit­ting be­hind the desk in his peach-themed of­fice. The 46-year-old farm­er has been push­ing for im­mig­ra­tion re­form for more than a dec­ade. He points to a photo on the wall of former Pres­id­ent George W. Bush seated at a table with a group of people. “That was me at the White House,” he says. “I was there with an arch­bish­op of the Cath­ol­ic Church, South­ern Baptists, you name it.”

Carr spent sum­mers pick­ing peaches with mi­grant work­ers at his uncle’s farm in North Car­o­lina when he was a boy. By the time he was 17, he had moved up to the po­s­i­tion of farm man­ager. Then he got a job man­aging a blue­berry farm while study­ing ag­ri­cul­tur­al eco­nom­ics at Clem­son Uni­versity. In 1992, he got mar­ried, bought a farm in North Flor­ida, and began grow­ing pep­pers, ve­get­ables, and a few vari­et­ies of peaches.

Carr, who now has two teen­age chil­dren, didn’t really get in­volved in polit­ics un­til the mid 1990s, while work­ing as a farm man­ager for the pre­vi­ous own­er of what is now Ti­tan Farms. The farm re­lied heav­ily on mi­grant labor, and a fed­er­al re­view of their em­ploy­ees’ W-2 forms one year showed that 90 per­cent of the So­cial Se­cur­ity num­bers didn’t match up.

Al­though work­ers of­ten presen­ted fake pa­pers that looked le­git­im­ate, Carr didn’t want to risk break­ing the law when he bought Ti­tan Farms in 1999. “I said, no, I’m not go­ing down the same road,” he says. “That’s when I went in­to the guest-work­er pro­gram.” He star­ted that year with 125 work­ers from Cent­ral Mex­ico, and most have re­turned every year, liv­ing and work­ing on the farm for up to 10 months at a time. Now the farm em­ploys about 500 guest work­ers.

As Carr drives his tan Chevy SUV past tidy rows of ripen­ing peaches, he de­scribes how the work­ers have helped him grow his busi­ness and how he, in turn, has helped them earn enough money to buy houses in Mex­ico and put their kids through col­lege. “They are like fam­ily,” says Carr, stop­ping his truck along the side of the road and walk­ing in­to a field of trees.

He waves down a tract­or and asks the driver — in rudi­ment­ary Span­ish — where the su­per­visor is. The driver pulls a smart­phone out of his pock­et and calls José Martín Car­bal Ramírez, who ap­pears a few mo­ments later wear­ing a base­ball cap and a Bluetooth earpiece. Ramírez has been work­ing at Ti­tan Farms for about 16 years, Carr says, and now over­sees a har­vest­ing crew of 60 work­ers, eight tract­ors, and two buses.

The 44-year-old nat­ive of Hidalgo, Mex­ico, says he sup­ports his wife and two sons back home on his hourly wage of $10.75. He’s bought a house, a car, and now pays his son’s col­lege tu­ition. It’s a re­lief to be able to work leg­ally in the United States and re­turn home each year, he says. But it’s also a sac­ri­fice. “I left my son when he was 3, and now he’s 17, 18, and I haven’t watched him grow. That’s the same for all these work­ers here,” says Ramírez.

The work is hard too, which is why Ramírez thinks Amer­ic­ans don’t last long on the job. Farm­work­ers start pick­ing peaches at dawn and may work up to 16 hours in a day at the height of the har­vest­ing sea­son. “Ag­ri­cul­ture is some of the heav­iest work there is,” he says. “If right now it starts to rain really hard, we have to keep work­ing. The har­vest­ing needs to be done. So an Amer­ic­an can’t put up with this work pace.”

His em­ploy­ees run back and forth from the trees to the tract­or, dump­ing bags of peaches in­to boxes and pack­ing them in­to plastic bins. Each work­er fills about 200 bags, and each tract­or makes about eight trips to un­load the fruit at the pack­ing shed.

In­side the shed, Es­per­anza Orozco sits on a plat­form watch­ing line work­ers sort the green bell pep­pers that also grow on the farm. The 44-year-old wo­man from Na­yar­it, Mex­ico, star­ted pick­ing peaches here two dec­ades ago and now runs the farm’s guest-work­er pro­gram.

Orozco cred­its Ti­tan Farms for help­ing her achieve the Amer­ic­an dream. She was a single moth­er work­ing at a fur­niture store in the re­sort town of Pu­erto Val­larta when she de­cided to look for work in the U.S. In­come from the fur­niture store job barely covered the cost of food for her and her 3-year-old daugh­ter. She said she re­mem­bers own­ing only one pair of jeans and a pair of shoes that matched everything.

“When you don’t have chil­dren, that’s OK. But when you have chil­dren, you know you don’t want that for [them],” she says, hold­ing back tears. Her daugh­ter is now an ar­chi­tect and just star­ted her own ar­chi­tec­ture firm, she adds with pride.

Orozco lives on the farm with the oth­er work­ers, who of­ten line up to call re­l­at­ives via Skype on one of the com­puters Carr provides in the break room. Some­times they drive in­to town to go to the gro­cery store or run er­rands. Orozco said it frus­trates her that people as­sume they are all “il­leg­als,” es­pe­cially be­cause Carr works so hard to do everything by the book. “He cares for the work­ers; he fol­lows the law,” says Orozco. “He de­serves help for whatever he is fight­ing for.”

Carr meets with Orozco and the oth­er work­ers every few months to up­date them on the pro­spects of im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Right now, he’s not feel­ing very op­tim­ist­ic. “I’m nev­er go­ing to give up hope, but I think our op­por­tun­it­ies for get­ting im­mig­ra­tion re­form done un­der this Con­gress are very bleak,” he says.