HICKORY POINT, TENN. — Inside a spartan shed thick with the smell of moist tobacco, temporary laborers from the Mexican state of Nayarit deftly stripped a truckload of the plant’s broad leaves from its hardened stalks.
A foreman, Pedro Peña, handed racks of dark air-cured tobacco down to another worker, Lupe Villegas, who loaded each one onto one of two sets of chain drives. As the racks went along the drive, teams of eight workers laid the stalks bare and sorted the tobacco into three grades, all in less than a minute. A final worker removed the exposed stems and loaded them into a V-shaped crib.
Without these 19 men, most of whom have been coming back every fall for a decade, George Marks could not bring in the three varieties of tobacco he farms, he says. The same is true of dairy cows, which he also raises on his Montgomery County farm, and a host of other crops grown in Tennessee — peaches, tomatoes, gourds, apples.
“If, theoretically, you did get rid of all the Mexicans, you’d be hungry in a week,” Marks said. “All your vegetables had a Mexican hand on it. All your fruit, and three-quarters of your meat.”
A set of tough new immigration laws that went into effect this year in Georgia and Alabama has highlighted the degree to which farmers in the Southeast have come to depend on foreign-born labor. And now, as Tennessee rolls out similar reforms, some in the agriculture industry are worried lawmakers may create a labor shortage here.
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