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As Tobacco Production Rises, Need For Affordable Labor Increases

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Tobacco leaf helped lay the foundation for North Carolina's economic history. However, as health concerns rose, tobacco took a dive. Now, with farmers benefiting from the federal buyout, the state's tobacco production is on the upswing for the first time since the 1990's.

"There's room right now for cautious optimism as far as the amount of tobacco we grow," said state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

However, news of production increases is tempered by guest worker labor concerns. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr struck a nerve at the state tobacco growers meeting.

"Comprehensive immigration reform is not easy," said Burr.

While public complaints explode over the rising number of illegal immigrants, farmers say they're struggling to get affordable help in the fields.

"We need good legal workers, people who are willing to do hard work most US citizens are not willing to do," said farmer Billy Carter.

Farmers like Carter rely on the federal guest worker program for migrant help. It costs him about $1,000 to bring each certified employee to North Carolina. This year, he's required to pay them $8.50 an hour.

"It's so burdensome, the paperwork...and the wages are set so high," said Carter.

With a much larger immigration debate brewing, Burr agrees. He believes farmers who follow the law are unfairly hit.

"It's hard to suggest we have a policy that's workable," he said.

Until there's workable relief, some warn more farmers may cut corners to protect their livelihood.

"They'll use illegal immigrants or anybody else they can to get their commodity in," said tobacco farmer Keith Parrish. "Maybe I shouldn't say that out in public, but it's just the nature of the beast."

Federal lawmakers are already feeling the pressure to get immigration under control. The plea from farmers makes a solution that much more complicated.

Burr told farmers not to expect answers anytime soon. He believes immigration reforms could take years.


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