Farmers voice opposition to tougher worker housing laws in Caroline

Posted on Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at 10:33 pm

MILFORD—About 75 farmers showed up Wednesday night to oppose Caroline County’s proposal to toughen housing requirements for seasonal farm labor.

The proposed changes came to the Caroline County Planning Commission at its meeting on Wednesday night. The commission’s duty is to examine zoning issues and make recommendations to the Caroline County Board of Supervisors, which has the final say on such matters.

After hearing comments from seven farmers and pro-farming advocates, Commissioner Milton Bush made a motion to defer the proposed changes until the January meeting. Through his motion, he also asked that the Board of Supervisors not act on the matter until the commission has made a recommendation.

Under the Agricultural Preservation District of the Caroline County Zoning Ordinance, which is posted at http://www.visitcaroline.com/zarticle5.pdf, the law currently says the minimum parcel size for housing for seasonal farm labor is 50 acres. However, county planners are looking at changing that to say that only one farm tenant structure is allowed per 500 acres. That is, “unless the owner can demonstrate that due to the intensity and/or type of farm, the five hundred acre minimum is too restrictive.” In that case, “not more than two farm tenant structures shall be permitted.”

The new proposal also defines farm tenant structures as being “limited to single-wide mobile homes.”

Another proposed new requirement is that at least one occupants of the manufactured home must “be employed full-time on the farm.”

Smaller farms rely on seasonal workers, said Albert Wachtmeister, who operates Black Marsh Farm in Caroline County. Up until 2006, he cultivated a vegetable farm and relied on 80 seasonal workers to pick the vegetables. He provided housing for them. The workers picked asparagus in April and other crops through the summer and finished the year in December with broccoli and kale, he said.

Wachtmeister was the first farmer to address commissioners and he told them with his Swedish accent, “Shame on whoever supports this. Our Founding Fathers would turn over in their graves listening to this B.S.”

Richard Bradley of Chilesburg said, “We should not pass laws unless there is a need. Don’t do anything unless there is a clear benefit from it. You’ll make it difficult for farmers to house these people.”

Mike Martin of Woodford said, “I’m new to the area. I have a small farm.” He noted that some farmers have large machines to harvest crops. “But I don’t have machines and that leaves me with (producing) fruits and vegetables. There is a growing interest in farming in Caroline. Anytime you take away from farmers, you tie their hands.

“You’ll shut the door on small farmers by not allowing them to house migrant workers,” Martin said. “You’ll take his tools—tools that a small farmer may not use today. But if you take them away, he won’t ever be able to use them.”

William Wallace of Woodford said, “This is being rushed—moved too fast.” He said a petition in opposition to the proposed changes is being circulated and already has “a lot of names.”

Susan Stepp of Port Royal asked commissioners, “I’d like to know what is broke and how this is the fix. Not everyone has several thousand acres” to farm. Those who have only a few acres tend to produce vegetables, which requires seasonal labor, she noted.

She said the state government has promoted the Virginia Grown program and farmers markets and there is a greater interest in Virginia in farming on a few acres.

Stepp said farmers already deal with “hurdles” in the form of  “many federal government” regulations.

Julia Jackson of Woodford told commissioners she is not a farmer but supports farmers in Caroline. “Farming is a way of making a living—a way of life, and this restricts it,” she said.

Dr. David Cunningham told commissioners he doesn’t live in Caroline but has relatives who do and they are upset about the proposed changes. He said he opposes the changes because he comes from “generations of farming.”

No one spoke in favor of the changes. When the last person had spoken, Commissioner Les Stanley told the farmers, “I have the utmost respect for farmers and for the tremendous risk they take every year—putting money into something and not knowing how it will turn out.”

Bush told the farmers, “I don’t think many of us would be here if it wasn’t for farmers. They’ve made a great contribution to get us crops and food.”

After the meeting, Wachtmeister said the state already has plenty of regulations on seasonal worker housing. “We followed all of the state regulations—from a certain number of windows per unit of housing to every window must have a screen. Only so many guys per shower.” Government inspectors came around and inspected his housing several times each season. He disbanded the labor camp in 2006. Before that, “produce was a hot commodity.”

The new proposal also says a farmer who wants to house seasonal workers must obtain a temporary zoning permit that is issued for up to three years.

Under the proposal, a farm is defined as land used for production of crops, raising of livestock, raising poultry and sale of chickens and eggs and growing fruit. In addition, to qualify as a farm, the operation must “demonstrate annual gross sales of $10,000 for each of the previous three years.” The farmer must demonstrate “sufficient need to justify one full-time farm employee for each structure requested.”

In other action, at the request of owners of the Virginia Sports Complex, the commission voted unanimously to defer action for another 30 days on the VSC sewage case. The VSC has a pump and haul permit which allows a specialized truck to haul away its sewage because the county does not provide sewage service to VSC and VSC does not have its own sewage treatment plant. The permit was meant to be only temporary, and VSC is asking for more time to come up with a permanent solution to its sewage issue.

In other action, commissioners voted unanimously to recommend the Board of Supervisors approve of a request from James E. Hill for a special exception permit to allow a sawmill on a 33-acre parcel at 21529 Bagby Road in the Bowling Green Voting District. This is in the Sparta Agricultural Preserve Area.

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