Labor is the largest variable expense in tobacco growing, especially when it comes to burley. Tobacco production studies have generally indicated that despite some gains in labor efficiency over the years, it still takes 150 to 200 hours of labor to grow an acre of burley tobacco.
Still, you can take some steps to help your farm operation perform efficiently. Will Snell, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, advises to grow tobacco as close to barns or curing structures as possible to minimize labor and transport costs; however, this may be a challenge given crop rotation goals and the increase in acreage for many farmers. Snell also recommends that burley farmers be particularly aware of their labor hours when it comes to stripping, as that stage typically requires more manpower than harvest does.
Making sure you have the right number of workers at the right time of the season is also important. You want your workers to be busy, but not overwhelmed with too much work, nor do you want them tripping over each other when there is not much to be done.
As with other U.S. crops, it’s becoming more difficult to find domestic laborers to work in tobacco fields. Farmers have become increasingly dependent on international seasonal workers, which may currently account for 75 percent or more of the total labor hours in tobacco production. In order to hire these workers, it is necessary to go through the H-2A visa program, which has proven difficult over the past few years.
Labor regulations and enforcement activities significantly heightened in 2011, says Kerry Scott, a program manager with MAS Labor, the leading for-profit service provider of H-2 services (H-2A for agriculture and H-2B for all other industries) in the United States. “It was proven to be the case that the Department of Labor (DOL) targeted the H-2 program for wage and hour audits,” he says. There were also many issues with the DOL denying H-2A filings, leading to more than 400 appeals against the DOL. The rulings in less than 10 percent of the appeals found the employer in the wrong, Scott says.
This issue was brought before Congress when the National Council of Agricultural Employers testified on the difficulties and flaws of the H-2A program. Scott believes because of the appeal to Congress, the audits from the DOL will stabilize. However, the rule of E-Verify has recently come out of committee, he says. E-Verify would require that new workers be documented in the E-Verify system, an Internet-based program run by the government that determines the eligibility of employees to work in the United States.
While the E-Verify ruling would have a three-year time buffer for the agriculture industry, it is important to keep up to date on this issue, Scott says. For more information on the H-2A program, application guidelines and requirements, see “MAS-H2A Program for Agricultural Employers” at www.maslabor.com/pages/h2a.html.