Mills River farmers ask Congress to protect their workforce

Agricultural leaders in Mills River are urging Congress to pass immigration reform that would protect their workforce.

Local business owners and managers sent a letter to Congressman Mark Meadows, Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr to create an agricultural worker visa program, citing a "labor crisis facing the agricultural industry." Their plan would assure these workers continue to contribute taxes.

They worry that changes to immigration policies could create a critical shortage of authorized and experienced workers.

"I'm an immigrant. And I came here with a visa. I did not come here to be a U.S. citizen, initially," Bert Lemkes, general manager of Tri-Hishtil, said. "That came way later. And most of the labor force in agriculture is here for one reason. It's to work ... not to create problems, but to create an income."

He supervises anywhere from 50 to 70 seasonal workers who were hired according to today's standards.

"We use all the proper documentation requirements with the I-9 form, so as far as we're concerned, the people we hire we are allowed to hire," said Lemkes.

The farmers are asking Congress for a long-term solution that will make sure they have workers for years to come. They say failure to do so will force America to export not only food production, but also thousands of farm-dependent jobs.

"Our fruits and vegetables that we consume in the United States will be picked by foreign hands," said Lemkes. "We have a choice, either in our borders or outside of the borders."

The letters, which were mailed out Friday, were signed by representatives from SuperSod, VanWingerden International, Mills River Creamery and Dairy, Johnson Family Farm, Small Acres Dairy, and North River Farm.

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