Mississippi Today reporter Sara DiNatale spent eight months investigating the state of the farming workforce in the Delta. She interviewed a dozen local and H-2A visa farm workers, including some currently living in South Africa.
She examined three investigation files from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which Mississippi Today obtained through public information requests.
What she discovered was alarming: At least five Delta farms paid their primarily Black local workforce less money per hour than temporary workers from other countries — most often, white men from South Africa.
“I started investigating the dynamics at play among the workforce on Delta farms because I knew it was more than just a lawsuit story,” DiNatale said. “I knew if I spent time listening and searching, records would back up what these men were telling me. And that’s what we were able to find.”
DiNatale along with data reporter Alex Rozier analyzed 15 years of labor department enforcement data to show the high rate Mississippi farms are found to be breaking labor laws when investigated by federal agents. They also sorted through nationwide H-2A applications data to identify trends among the Mississippi farms that used the program last year.
DiNatale contacted more than 30 farm owners throughout the Delta and spent time with veteran farmworkers. Her reporting was informed by interviews with agricultural academics from Alcorn State University, University of Arkansas and Tuskegee University, as well as researchers at the Economic Policy Institute. She attended a virtual session held by the Department of Labor meant to educate about farmworkers’ rights and missteps often made by farmers using the H-2A program.
While she used information shared in the Mississippi Center for Justice’s lawsuits against Pitts Farms and Harris Russell Farm, she also verified information shared by attorneys with former workers and experts familiar with the H-2A program.
“The problem our investigation uncovered is complex and nuanced,” DiNatale said. “But Mississippi leadership has made it clear they want to focus on creating well-paying jobs in the state. I think the biggest takeaway of everything is: Don’t forget about the Delta.”