November 25, 2005
By The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.
Wayne Scott knows farming. His family has been in the agriculture business for six decades, cultivating crops in four counties across upper East Tennessee.
Scott Farms tomatoes and strawberries can be bought at roadside stands that stretch from Clinton to Johnson City. And every last one of those ripe fruits and vegetables arrive at the market because of Hispanic labor.
Scott Farms employs roughly 300 migrant laborers each year. All of them hail from Mexico.
"If these people were to disappear, we'd starve in this country," he said. "If they did, there would not be any food available." There are an estimated 41 million Hispanics living in the United States.
State officials said they don't track how many migrant workers there are in Tennessee because of their temporary and itinerant nature.
But the 2002 Census of Agriculture, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, showed roughly 9 percent of farms in Tennessee that hired laborers used migrant workers, either through contractors or direct hires. In addition, the federal government offers a program, called the H-2A program, whereby nonimmigrant foreign farm workers are placed with agricultural employers if they can show there are no local workers available for the job.
Roughly 1,700 workers were matched up with just less than 200 employers through the program in Tennessee in 2004, according to Judy Stewart, an H-2A specialist with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
"Farmers can bring in workers and be sure they are here legally," Stewart said. "These are the only numbers (of migrant workers) we're sure of."
The number of employers and workers certified through the program hasn't fluctuated much since 2000, Stewart said. "The program gets more expensive every year," she said. "The farmers have to pay for all of it."
But their incentive is knowing they'll be getting reliable and legal workers.
The Agriculture Census also showed 836 farms in Tennessee -- just 1 percent of all the state's farms -- were operated by someone of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origin. A little more than a third of those were in East Tennessee.
Scott, meanwhile, served in the Navy during World War II and then worked briefly as a teacher after earning a degree from the University of Tennessee via the G.I. Bill. He quit education in the 1950s to join the family business on the farm.
For his first 20 years, his work force was primarily local workers drawn from Unicoi, Carter, Sullivan and Washington counties. But in the early 1970s, Scott Farms began to have trouble finding enough employees willing to sweat out the long days under the summer Tennessee sun.
He turned to Hispanics.
"The first Mexican arrived in 1973 and we've had them come every year since," Scott said.
The process is surprisingly simple.
Each spring, he coordinates with a firm in North Carolina to bring in the migrant workers. He tells the company how many workers he needs and pays the firm to complete the necessary paperwork. The Mexican laborers arrive in a mass contingent via a 40-hour bus ride from Guanajuato, Mexico.
Most of the workers are men between 18 and 40, but some entire families make the trip for the seven months of work. There are some employees who work on the farm well into their 60s. The men -- and a handful of women -- earn 45 cents for each bucket they fill with crops, which can translate to roughly $85 per day. Otherwise, they make a straight $8.17 per hour. It's a healthy wage for people who say they make roughly $12 per day for similar work at home in Mexico.
The work is backbreaking and the living conditions are austere. The migrants live 30 to a room and sleep on bunk beds. Privacy is nonexistent; family is thousands of miles away.
The migrants work 10 hours a day and normally take only Sunday off. Their entertainment consists of watching soccer on television at night and playing soccer and baseball on Sunday afternoons.
Despite the hardships, complaints are rare among the group.
"Mr. Scott is well liked," Jesus Hernandez, 57, said. "I want to come keep coming here until I am too old to work. Until I can't lift and work."
At 60, Amando Perez Rodriquez, too, plans to return to East Tennessee next season.
"I like Tennessee because the people are good to us here," Rodriquez said. "We are a big family, working on the farms. Even when someone is sick, he says he wants to go to the fields and work."
Scott, for his part, credits his Mexican labor force with saving his business.
"We wouldn't be here if it were not for them," he said. "There are no white people who will do it anymore. It's hard work."
As one of the largest employers of migrant laborers in East Tennessee, Scott has paid attention over the years to meeting government standards and remaining legitimate.
"We've been inspected by everyone," he said. The workers have given him a lesson in multiculturalism and have taught him that for all their difference in language and culture, the Mexicans he employs aren't too different from him and his Unicoi County family.
"They're like you and I, they have families and support their families," Scott said. "They send their kids to school. Some of them will tell you, 'I don't want to pick tomatoes my whole life.' "