America, a country that once thrived on an agriculture-based job demographic, is changing course — and a Haywood County business is profiting from this change.
USA Farm Labor recently celebrated a ribbon cutting ceremony for its third location expansion, on Dellwood Road in Waynesville.
Manuel and Kathy Fick moved to Indiana from South Africa before rooting their family in Haywood County in 2007, where they started the company in 2008.
“God led us to come to America so that we could provide a life line for South Africans,” said Manuel, the owner of USA Farm Labor.
USA Farm Labor connects seasonal farmers in more than 80 foreign countries, primarily in South Africa, to larger farms in places like the Dakotas, Missouri, Texas, Nebraska, North Carolina and Kentucky, to fill jobs that are mostly spurned by American citizens.
The individuals who come to America for the seasonal work are typically employed for 10 months on mostly crop, livestock or grain farms.
In North Carolina, 20,713 employees in agricultural positions were hired through programs that like USA Farm Labor that use the H-2A visa program available in the U.S. This means that 20,713 American citizens could have filled positions in the state, but instead, were filled with foreign employees eager for work.
USA Farm Labor is the third highest user of this program in the country.
Before USA Farm Labor places foreigners onto American farms, the farm itself must prove that they did everything in their power to hire U.S. citizens first.
A misunderstood concept
“A large misconception people have about our company is that we are taking jobs from American people,” said Manuel.
Before farmers are approved to hire workers on an H-2A visa, they must advertise job availability in at least one local newspaper and three out-of-state papers where agriculture is prevalent. This ensures Americans had the first chance to acquire the available position.
Once that effort is made, H-2A visa programs allow businesses to hire employees from foreign countries for agriculture positions.
Being under the H-2A visa umbrella, USA Farm Labor takes care of all of their clients' legal work before they come to the country to start their job.
After the evaluation in 2017, the North Carolina Growers Association, Inc., requires 11,947 positions be filled by H-2A employees, making them the highest-need client in the country.
This is where USA Farm Labor steps in.
Filling the positions
Once an employer proves a need for foreign employees, USA Farm Labor begins reaching out to clients in other countries and beginning the paper work process with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
“American farmers are thankful for our clients,” said Manuel. “Our clients are also thankful for the work, since the political climate, especially in South Africa, causes a lack of job availability for families.”
Last year, 1,500 positions opened on farms throughout the U.S. that could’ve been filled by Americans.
Out of the 1,500 positions open, USA Farm Labor clients hired 849 foreign workers to fill open slots on U.S. farms across the country.
The American farmers are required to provide the foreign clients with all necessary supplies to work, a home, food or free transportation to purchase food and a free phone for communication.
As far as income, as a minimum, H-2A employers must pay their workers the Department of Labor's Adverse Effect Wage Rate, the state minimum wage or the prevailing wage, depending on which is highest.
USA Farm Labor currently has 400 clients working in the U.S. and is expected to grow, based off on its 30 percent growth rate last year.
Manuel said only 11 of the 30 clients they started with 17 years ago are still in active employment and 80 percent of their newer clients return for multiple seasons.
“When people deal with us, they know they are dealing with people, not robots,” said Alex Cracchiolo, an employee at USA Farm Labor. “We approach our clients in a way that we aren’t done communicating with our workers until they return home.”
Out of the 103 surveys answered from USA Farm Labor clients last year, eight out of 10 clients say that the H2A program is critical to the survival of their farm.
A similar response showed that 52 percent of farmers had no American citizens respond to their job advertisements, while another 42 percent of clients only had between one and three responses total.
With the current political state in this country, business is expected to go up, especially if E-Verify becomes required in all 50 states, according to Manuel.
E-Verify is a web-based system that allows employers to check I-9 documentation to confirm that the employee is eligible to work in the U.S.
With a current push toward proving legal citizenship in the work place, agricultural employers will be more inclined to use USA Farm Labor or similar entities, to ensure that they are hiring legal employees.
At this time, USA Farm Labor is the first largest of its kind in South Africa, and the third largest in the U.S.
“Farmers can now come to us for a legal solution,” said Manuel.