Migrant workers harvest job security

RIDGE SPRING, S.C. --- Pruning, thinning and harvesting a peach crop is hard, repetitious work, made graceful by experience and speed. Titan Farms field employees are in the second act of the yearlong push to harvest.

Workers are now running their hands up and down lush peach tree branches along 3,900 acres, choosing which pieces of fruit are worthy of staying for the final act, which will send the crop to area homes and markets next month.

The leafy limbs provide little solace from the Southern humidity and heat. Winter is hard, too, with early mornings of below-freezing conditions that numb fingers and chap lips.

It's work that few locals can manage, and it has become the craft of migrant workers who make their way to the area from Mexico for three to 10 months of each year.

A dozen years ago, Titan CEO Chalmers Carr III made a decision to invest in migrant workers in a way he hadn't done before through a U.S. Department of Labor program called H-2A.

The program pushed out illegal immigrants who might have been unreliable. With the promise of work and lodging, rural Mexican employees line up to take the jobs each year. Carr's commitment to a healthy work environment is also a major draw, bringing back 99 percent of the more than 400 employees to Ridge Spring for harvest each year.

The program

Titan Farms' worker program is something like a summer camp with a military regimen.

About 440 workers travel on an air-conditioned bus from Mexico to the back roads of Ridge Spring.

The cost for visas and entry into the H-2A program runs about $200 per person, much cheaper and safer than the $2,500 they could pay a smuggler to sneak someone into the country for work.

Tucked away behind peach fields and dirt roads are dormitories where men sleep four to a room and 32 to a house.

The dorms smell of sweat and wood and lack a homey feel -- except in the kitchen, where employees' favorite foods line shelves and playing cards and games are stashed in the corner to pass evenings.

Carr and his farm manager, Amancio Palma, said outsiders often talk about their employees taking American jobs, but they're doing the work no one wants.

"It's too hard, and we're lazy," Carr said.

In the past year, fewer than 40 local workers, about 10 per- cent of Carr's labor needs, filled out an application to work on his farm. Only three are still on the job.

The life

Palma started working in the Titan fields 17 years ago, just a year before Carr took over the company to push labor and production.

The pair are almost like brothers, laughing in between field checks over the walkie talkies.

During harvesting season, Palma has workers out before 6 a.m. to beat the sweltering heat.

Depending on the weather, workers might toil until sundown to beat a storm or leave early to get out of the sun.

"If you have three fields ripening at the same time, you have to keep going or you'll lose the crop," Carr said.

Getting the guys ready for a day of work is like preaching to them, Palma said.

"We're family, and this belongs to everybody," he said. "If they do a sloppy job today, we may not be here tomorrow. I tell them that this money is theirs to take back to their homes."

Employees earn $8-$10 an hour, with the rule being $2 more an hour than minimum wage, Carr said.

This year, a wage increase will bump that pay up to $12-$14 an hour.

Wages are also tax-free because employees are not eligible for unemployment, Medicare and Social Security.

"The only expense a worker incurs is his food, clothing, personal hygiene products and any extra items he desires," Carr said.

Employee Sebastian Hernandez, 38, who got into the program about 11 years ago, said coming to the U.S. isn't about becoming a citizen, but just taking care of family back home.

The untaxed money he earns the 10 months he's here is sent back to his father. The other two months of the year he works in a sweat shop in Mexico sewing clothes, he said.

More than a decade of work at Titan also means seeing an extended family when he returns to South Carolina.

"I wouldn't exchange these guys for nothing in the world," he said.

Evenings are spent playing soccer, or futbol, and goofing off to celebrate a hard day's work.

Palma even misses dinners with his wife to eat with the workers at the dormitories to build relationships and keep morale high.

"It's a better life, and this is a land of opportunity," Palma said.

Farmers use labor programs to hire migrant workers