INDIANOLA – The new crop of workers arrived with clipped accents and small khaki shorts.
Richard Strong remembers the young men – farmers back home – had never seen a massive 28,000-pound tractor until traveling some 8,000 miles to Mississippi.
As kids, Richard and his brother, Gregory, earned calloused palms chopping cotton in the swelter of southern summers. As adults, they spent 24 years filling acres with cotton, soybeans and corn on Pitts Farms – just like their daddy had.
“Farming is actually in our DNA,” said Richard Strong, now 51. “I could close my eyes and drive a tractor.”
But the brothers haven’t been on a tractor or in the fields in over two years. They say they unknowingly trained themselves out of jobs when the Pitts family hired South Africans through a visa program.
The Pitts paid their foreign workforce nearly $12 an hour while their local workers – usually Black men – made just $7.25 to $9.50 per hour, according to a Department of Labor audit that spanned 2020 and 2021. The audit also found four local workers lost out on shifts when the temporary workers arrived.
But the Strongs and other Black workers say the pay gap existed from the first day the South Africans started at the family-owned farm several years before. Records show the Pitts started seeking foreign workers as early as 2014. Locals got an occasional pay bump on the weekends, but mostly took home federal minimum wage as the farm started giving them fewer shifts, according to years of paystubs obtained by Mississippi Today.
The Strongs and six others – who worked for the Pitts for more than 100 combined years – say they were pushed out of their jobs completely.
“I just want to know how you do this with a clear conscience,” said Willie Mae Ward, daughter of a former Pitts worker. “I see it as slave driving.”
Pitts Farms is not the only Delta farm that has misused the program. A Mississippi Today investigation found at least five farms in the Delta paid their local workforce less money than workers who came to the state on foreign farm work permits – called H-2A visas – over the past few years.
All but one of those farms worked with an agency that specializes in recruiting South Africans, who are usually young, white and speak English. They’re eager for the American dollar, which holds 15 times the value of the South African rand.
Across the Delta, farm owners say they’re responding to a generational shift from farming and a shortage of willing labor. Their local workforce is aging and foreign workers jump at the chance to come work in Mississippi.
But poor recruitment efforts among local workers, evidence of low wages, and a labor culture rooted in racism mean men like the Strongs wonder if there’s a future for them in the fields, or whether decades of family history end here.
The brothers and their coworkers are named in a discrimination lawsuit against Pitts Farms. It was filed last year by lawyers with the Mississippi Center for Justice. The lawsuit alleges men, ranging in age from 42 to 71, were replaced by a younger and whiter workforce, in part by exploiting the visa program to import foreign laborers.
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Black workers have been sounding alarms across the Delta for the last year.
This April, the lawyers handling the lawsuit against Pitts Farms filed another – this time, on behalf of five Black catfish farm workers at Harris Russell Farms in Sunflower. The workers made up to $3.38 less an hour than their South African counterparts, according to the lawsuit.
The H-2A program is supposed to fill gaps for farmers when they cannot find enough local workers for seasonal positions. The program mandates a premium hourly wage, produced by a formula. This year in Mississippi, that wage rose to $12.45 per hour. Labor regulations mandate farms hiring H-2A workers must offer jobs to prior local workers at that adjusted rate and cannot pay current workers below it.
Yet, another Black worker from a different Delta farm settled outside of court this year because his employer paid white South Africans more than him per hour. A recent Department of Labor investigation found two other catfish farmers – one in Indianola and the other in Tunica – paying local workers less money than those brought in through the foreign visa program, according to records obtained by Mississippi Today.
“There has been a wholesale failure to adequately recruit U.S. farmworkers for H-2A jobs, particularly in the Mississippi Delta,” said Ty Pinkins, one of the Mississippi Center for Justice attorneys. “There are plenty of Delta residents with extensive experience who would eagerly accept a farm labor job that paid between $11 and $13 per hour.”
The Mississippi Delta is one of the country’s poorest regions with unemployment rates ranging from 4% to 12% across its 18 counties.
The Pitts lawsuit was filed in September 2021 and is still moving forward in court. The farm, which has been family owned and run out of Indianola since at least 1987, declined to respond to Mississippi Today’s questions through their lawyer, but did offer a statement.
“We strongly disagree with the plaintiffs’ claims and we look forward to presenting the full set of facts in the course of the litigation and having this matter decided according to the law,” attorney Tim Threadgill said via email.
The other farms Mississippi Today found underpaying local workers either declined to comment or never responded to a reporter.
So far this season, four of the five farms – including Pitts – have applied for foreign workers. The labor department has approved them all.
Nationwide, use of the H-2A program is exploding.
It has more than doubled in size over the past decade, breaking a record last year when the U.S. issued nearly 258,000 of the temporary farm work visas.
In Mississippi, 368 farms asked for H2-A workers for the 2020-21 season, according to application data analyzed by Mississippi Today. Only 14 were denied.
For the roughly 34,000 farms across Mississippi, about 400 cases have been opened by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division in the past 15 years. Among that fraction, a Mississippi Today analysis found 81% of the cases ended with farms found breaking labor regulations. That’s about 10% higher than the national rate.
Critics say the fines for underpaying U.S. workers – $1,898 per offense – or failing to call back local workers for jobs are barely a deterrent. When farmers do get caught breaking wage rules, investigation records show they feign ignorance.
“For some of these employers, it’s like speeding down the highway when there’s not a lot of police out,” said Jim Knoepp, a lawyer and visa program expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s a good gamble they’ll never get caught.”
Richard Strong would work for another farm if he could. Farmers talk, he said. As far as he can tell, he and his brother are blacklisted.
Strong remembers a Pitts Farms manager telling him he was taking the farm into the “new millennium.”
“A lot of stuff was going to change,” Strong recalled. “And there was a lot of people who wasn’t going to be a part of the farm.”
That meant men like Wesley Reed, 71, and Andrew Johnson, 67. Men who were born into the Jim Crow South and came of age during the earliest years of desegregation. Men who have only ever farmed.
They may not be as spry as they were 40 years ago, but they know their way around a row-crop tractor. Both managed to find other jobs with farmers who don’t use South Africans.
“At the time I started, it was about the only job I could get because I have no education,” Johnson said as he refueled a John Deere tractor.
He spent two decades working for the Pitts. He can’t read, but taught himself how to set up a tractor’s satellite settings.
Johnson and Reed cannot afford to retire. They’ve never earned enough to save much.
One of their attorneys, Gregory Schell, points to payroll records Pitts Farms produced during the court case’s discovery: individual H-2A workers earned over $41,000 working for Pitts Farms in 2019.
Reed, Schell said, earned $11,000 that year, as the Pitts stopped giving him as many shifts.
That was his last year with the farm. Johnson’s, too. Both had planned to come back in 2020.
Reed – who had already asked for, and been denied, a raise – says he was told that year they weren’t sure they’d need him anymore. The South Africans were coming, Reed recalled.
Johnson waited for a phone call to return to work that never came.
Before Richard Strong found a pay stub that confirmed the South Africans were making higher wages, Reed had his suspicions.
A month after the lawsuit was filed, Reed sat in his shotgun living room, still in his dirtied denim overalls from a day plowing the fields.
“Did you know, when the South Africans started, they’d be paid more? How did you know?” Reed’s daughter, Willie Mae, asked.
“Skin color,” he said.
As attorneys with the Mississippi Center for Justice were piecing together the Pitts Farms lawsuit in early 2021, investigators from the Department of Labor were beginning an audit.
It’s unclear what prompted DOL to look into Pitts Farms and whether it was related to the lawsuit. The department’s Wage and Hour Division, which handles H-2A program violations, has a hotline – 1-866-4-USWAGE – anyone can call to anonymously report mistreatment to help steer investigators.
The audit of the farm’s payroll began in February 2021. The entire investigation was done remotely. The agency says that was because of COVID-19.
Mississippi Today obtained a copy of the Pitts Farms audit through a public records request.
On June 4, 2021, investigators had a conference call with Pitts Farms to explain that the Indianola business was facing 18 labor violations, owed local workers $76,000 in missing wages, and was being fined $25,000.
Investigators wrote in their report Lisa Tharp, the office manager, said she and Pitts Farms were “not aware that local U.S. corresponding workers needed to be paid the same as H-2A workers.”
But every year from 2014 to 2019 the Pitts applied for H-2A workers the farm’s owner, Will Pitts, signed agreements on its applications confirming that job opportunities for its local workers had “no less the same benefits, wages, and working conditions” as the incoming H-2A workers.
Despite Pitts Farms’ admission, the audit only looked at two seasons of the farm’s payroll: 2020 and 2021.
The two catfish farm owners in the Delta who were told to pay a combined $102,000 in back wages to their local workers in 2020 had a similar response when confronted about underpaying workers, according to investigation reports. The catfish cases also examined two years of payroll.
In a statement, the labor department said each of its investigations is driven by “the availability of evidence, including records and testimony.” Generally, the agency said, it applies a two-year investigation period as its standard scope.
“Had they gone back even one more year, they would have picked up on every one of our clients being underpaid,” said Schell, one of the men’s attorneys.
Of the eight men included in the Pitts Farms case, only one got a portion of the $76,000 in wages the investigators found missing from workers’ paychecks, according to Schell.
Before asking for foreign workers, Pitts – like all H-2A farms – was required to offer jobs to the locals who had worked at the farm before, usually by mail. Investigators found Pitts hadn’t done that, either.
The farm argued that the local workers who lived on the farm’s property were drawing unemployment and did not want to work out of fear of COVID-19 exposure. Yet, as the investigators pointed out, the violations occurred before the pandemic began.
Schell called the audit a perfunctory investigation.
He estimates the men in the lawsuit are owed more than $100,000 in unpaid wages. There is a larger amount being sought in addition that would cover lost hours. Schell said his team is still calculating that figure.
“I’m doing the math and the Pitts came out way ahead,” he said.
When COVID-19’s omicron variant closed the U.S. borders to South Africans, Mississippi farm owners panicked.
They had become so reliant on South African workers that the ability to harvest crops was dependent upon their arrival. In response, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation President Mike McCormick wrote a letter to the state’s members of Congress, begging that South African farm workers be exempt from any potential travel bans.
The State Department made provisions within days so that the farm workers could travel without issue.
The visa program is popular because it brings in workers for eight to 10 months and sends them home during the winter season, McCormick told Mississippi Today
“It fits the farm industry,” he said. “No work for four months? That’s a hard thing to justify (to local workers). Maybe back in the old days, but as expensive as things are today, everybody needs to collect a paycheck every week.”
Farmers say as their longtime workers reach retirement, there isn’t a young workforce eager – or with the proper skills – to take their places, which has added to the popularity of the H-2A program.
“Coming generations of workers in our state, most of them did not grow up on a farm,” said Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson. “They don’t really know the current status of the type of work that’s performed or the high-tech technology it takes even to use a tractor today.”
More than 90% of H-2A workers come from Mexico. South Africans make up about 3% of the program, according to DOL data.
Ricky Williamson, a rice and soybean farmer in Tutwiler, has been using Mexican H-2A workers for the past decade. Farmers have to reimburse travel expenses. Williamson said he uses workers from Mexico to keep those costs down.
“I have no local labor because they don’t apply for jobs,” Williamson said. “I run ads in the paper and they don’t respond. I would like to have some, but I just think they’re not interested.”
Growers are required to advertise the jobs to U.S. workers before seeking H-2A employees. They often list farming experience requirements along with the ability to read and write or the completion of high school or high school equivalency.
Only six Delta counties have full-time WIN Job Centers, which host the job postings on their website. Swaths of the Delta struggle with reliable internet access. That leaves some agriculture experts unimpressed with the efforts farmers are taking to reach or train workers in their own zip codes.
Farm workers told Mississippi Today that finding a job is about who you know.
“White farmers say they tried to hire labor locally and couldn’t find it when they’re in a region with the highest unemployment rate in the country?” posed Lloyd Wright, the former civil rights director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“That takes a big imagination.”
Wright has researched the Delta. He’s spent time in South Africa, too, as an expert in rural farming.
Most of his work at the USDA involved systemic racism that limited USDA funds going to Black-owned farms, making it all the more challenging for them to survive.
White-owned Mississippi farms have an extensive post-slavery history of finding ways to both exploit, and minimize their reliance on, Black workers – from tenant farming and sharecropping to using European prisoners of war in the fields during World War II. A century ago, there were about 1 million Black farm owners. The USDA says of the country’s 3.4 million farmers today, only about 45,000 are Black
The mostly Black population of the Delta largely struggles in poverty. There are few industries to provide jobs other than agriculture. Small towns in the region can have upwards of 50% unemployment rates, according to a 2016 Alcorn State University study.
Federal dollars regularly flow into the region – but to farm owners through the U.S. Department of Agriculture grants. Public records show Pitts Farms received nearly $2 million in USDA grants since 2018.
“These towns are crumbling in the Delta,” Wright said. Since farmers accept this money readily, they need to “get local folks educated so they can provide for their communities. The bodies are available.”
Cindy Ayers Elliott is an investment-banker-turned-farm-owner based in Jackson. Like Wright, she worries the growing popularity of the H-2A program is sending needed money out of the Delta, as H-2A workers primarily save up to bring their earnings back home.
If farm owners are struggling to attract workers, Elliot said, they need to ask themselves why. One of the answers? The children of farmworkers grew up watching their parents struggle on minimum wage.
“Right now, systemic racism is in the farm culture in Mississippi,” she said.
Farm owners don’t have the time to hunt down South African workers themselves – so they outsource the task. Most use an agency to handle the H-2A process from paperwork to finding a pool of applicants for a fee.
Of the 354 Mississippi farms that were approved for H-2A workers last year, about half used the Mississippi-based agency C.O.C Placement Service. That same agency also handled finding workers for four of the farms Mississippi Today found underpaying its local workers.
The company declined to speak to Mississippi Today.
Mississippi Today contacted two dozen farmers that used the agency. Most declined to speak with a reporter out of fear it would bring attention to their farm and prompt a labor department investigation.
“These practices by third-party organizations, like C.O.C Placement, simply show that there has previously been – and likely still is – widespread non-compliance by farm owners to pay local U.S. workers the (wages) required,” said Pinkins, one of the attorneys.
Mississippi farmers say they like South Africans because they’re dedicated. South Africans say they like Mississippi farmers because they want to get paid American wages.
“When they come here, they want to go six days a week,” said Allen Flowers, who runs a mom-and-pop soybean farm in Greenwood. “They’re polite and all about being on time.”
A 15-hour workday isn’t unusual, H-2A workers said. Nor is seeing tractors in the fields after dark when visibility is low – a risk local workers told Mississippi Today they wouldn’t feel safe taking.
The South African workers are usually – if not always – white. The apartheid regime fell three decades ago, but the country’s 80% Black population’s historic limited access to wealth and landownership hasn’t made it easy for them to join the H-2A program.
Neil Diamond, the president of the South African Chamber of Commerce U.S.A., says his commission is working to bring more Black South Africans into the program but their lack of participation is a definite shortfall.
The South Africans who do make it to America get a respite from their country’s own problems, as it continues to grapple with a high rate of violent crime.
“Everything is about the money,” said Dwayne Van Der Walt, a former H-2A worker from South Africa. “No man would leave behind his wife and children if it wasn’t for the good salary there, so you can buy burglary-proof stuff and better fences to keep homes safer.”
Van Der Walt, 31, spent seven years working months at a time on U.S. farms, including in Clarksdale and Greenwood.
In America, he was able to save up about $20,000. It went far in South Africa, where he’s now a trucker. He got his commercial license while working in America. The program helped set him up to support his 3-year-old child as a single parent.
H-2A workers told Mississippi Today that performing a similar type of farm work in South Africa would pay just a few hundred dollars a month.
The only raise Black Pitts Farms workers ever recalled getting was when the federal minimum wage changed.
That means as recently as 1989, these workers were making just $3.35 an hour. That’s about a $1 raise each decade to hit $7.25.
In December, civil rights group the Leadership Conference Education Fund wrote a letter to Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh stating the department’s efforts to protect Black southern workers was “falling short.” They were referring to the Pitts Farms lawsuit.
“Unfortunately, in all too many instances, importation of these foreign workers has been to the extreme detriment of rural U.S. employees, many of whom are people of color,” the letter said.
The labor department responded by touting their Pitts Farms investigation – the one Mississippi Today found only captured a two-year payroll audit.
Walsh’s office has since announced plans to hold a roundtable discussion in Indianola.
“Equity is a critical issue for the department, and the Wage and Hour Division is firmly committed to working with our stakeholders on the ground to protect the most vulnerable workers,” a DOL spokesperson said in a statement.
On June 8, the agents who investigate farm wages and other violations held a seminar in the Delta to explain regulations and the audit process – like the one the Pitts went through – to farm owners.
Diamond, the director of the South African commerce office, says any farm or agency found breaking the rules is kicked out of their trade group.
“There are bad actors out there,” he said. “We don’t have control over everyone, it’s a very large program, but we encourage farmers and workers to be fully compliant with the regulations.”
These days, Richard Strong makes money cutting hair. His brother takes on odd mechanic jobs.
One of the other men in the Pitts lawsuit, a truck driver in his 40s, now drives for Dollar General rather than transporting crops. It’s the first time in his adult life he’s had health insurance.
Richard misses the tractor’s steady thrum. Sometimes, he closes his eyes and he’s back. He can see the controls in his head.
He has a 15-year-old son, Amaureon, who wants to farm. The teen is drawn to the powerful machinery, the massive tractors, the combines – just like his dad.
He’s in a farming program at school where he works hands-on with equipment. He takes pride in watching dirt and seeds become corn through his hard work.
“Farming is the one thing I’ve always loved,” he said.
He knows what his father has gone through. He knows it’s unfair. But he still wants to farm.
He watched a tractor rake through a field across the street from his home on a recent morning. He thought about owning acres of land. Maybe one day he could be his own boss.
That way, he wouldn’t be at the whims of someone else.
Note: Mississippi Today reporter Alex Rozier contributed to this report.