I had the chance to chat on Feb. 23 with Stan Eury, executive director of the Vass-based North Carolina Growers Association,

9:15 a.m. Tom Karst: Thanks for making time today for a chat. I appreciate it.  I wanted to ask you about the new H-2A rule. First of all, tell me about your organization in North Caroline. What does your group do for your members?

9:20 a.m. Stan Eury: NCGA is a nonprofit grower co-op organized for the sole purpose of assisting our members with participation in the H-2A program in a joint employer format.

9:23 a.m. Tom: As such, you are very familiar with the inner workings of the H-2A program over the years, no doubt. I understand North Carolina has been a state where the program has been utilized. What is the history of the H-2A program there in North Carolina, and why has it made sense for some growers over the years?

9:27 a.m. Stan: There are two main reasons that growers are members of NCGA. First NCGA is a compliance resource for immigration and labor law. Additionally there is a long history of labor shortages in our state and our members rely on NCGA for a dependable and stable workforce to grow high capitol labor intensive crops.

9:28 a.m. Tom: Do you know what percentage of fruit and vegetable growers may use the guest worker program in the state?

9:30 a.m. Stan: While there are no firm statistics available, based on anecdotal evidence related to overall worker and crop numbers I would estimate 30% to %40.

9:32 a.m. Tom: And now to ask you about the changes to the H-2A program by the Obama administration. I know there is a lot involved with that rule, but can you summarize what it might mean for employers participating in the program? What are your chief concerns?

9:42 a.m. Stan: In summary the Solis (Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis)  final rule takes the things we liked about the Bush regulation and rolls it back to the 1987 regulation or makes it worse. The Solis rule takes the things we didn't like about the Bush regulation and retains them or makes it worse.

 In North Carolina wages will go up on average of $1.75 per hour and increases other program costs substantially, increases the penalty structure and lowers the standards for program debarment and certification revocation. It is widely believed by H-2A program users that President Obama and Secretary Solis are sending a clear signal that they prefer farmers break the law and employ illegal workers. Furthermore we believe that the Solis rule is part of an overarching strategy by the Obama administration to remove the only safety valve to for agricultural employers to hire legal guest workers and force H2A users into supporting an amnesty program in the future.

9:43 a.m. Tom: How will it play out for your growers this year? Will some drop the program?  In your mind, what does the "solution" to the lack of legal farm workers and the increasing cost of the H-2A program?

9:50 a.m. Stan: It’s too early to tell. Growers have been whip sawed back and forth with four different sets of regulations in the last thirteen months. There is no question that the increased cost imposed by the Solis rule will force growers to make hard choices - no profit for their hard work, investment and risk - or - they will be forced to break the law and hire illegal workers - or quit farming. All three scenarios are bad options for food safety security and production in the US.

9:53 a.m. Tom: What do you think the solution looks like for the problem of the lack of legal farm workers and the cost of the H-2A program? Is AgJobs the answer or something else?

 10:11 a.m. Stan: AgJobs is not the answer in its current form. The overwhelming majority of H-2A users are opposed to the AgJobs bill because it does not fix the H2A program. The H-2A reforms in title 2 of AgJobs needs a permanent and reasonable wage fix, legal protections for growers from expensive and frivolous litigation, and legitimate fixes to streamline the bureaucratic process at three federal government agencies so growers can get legal workers when and where they need them at a reasonable cost.

Rarely does the government come as close to finding the proper balance to such a complex issue as guest workers as did the Bush rules for H2A. The Bush administration found the proper balance between protection for workers and a program that agricultural employers can actually use. We do need a legislative fix and our industry has only one chance to "get it right". Whatever passes, agriculture will have to live with for the next thirty years. If we don't get it right this time, labor intensive farms will be decimated before we have another legislative opportunity. Farmers remember the 1987 "fix" (amnesty and so called H2A reform) didn't work. For the sake of food security and our nation, we must get it right this time.

10:14 a.m. Tom: Stan, thanks for your time and insight this morning. You have been very generous. One more question: it's almost March Madness and you are in a state that is a basketball Mecca. Who is the team you follow?

10:15 a.m. Stan: UNC - we are struggling this year but 2011 holds a lot of promise. Let's hope we can say the same for labor intensive agriculture.
10:16 a.m. Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you, call me anytime.

 Tom: Thanks again. I’m sure the Heels will be back.