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North Carolina farmer ties success to immigration

Farmer Taylor Slade runs a cotton gin in Martin County, N.C.

Taylor Slade says he is a poor dirt farmer, a debt holder.

He's exaggerating, of course. Slade owns more than 3,000 acres of farmland. And his family has been living in Martin County, N.C., for a long time. The first member of the Slade clan got here almost three centuries ago, from England.

"My ancestor -- probably the sheriff -- was chasing him and he was trying to get away and he ran down to the dock, and there was a ship pulling out, and it was either go overboard, get arrested, or jump on the ship. And he got on the ship, and this is where he wound up," said Slade.

Slade lives in a part of North Carolina with a lot of agriculture -- fields full of tobacco and soybeans. But cotton is still king here, even if the market has changed. Slade says that today 95 percent of all the cotton produced in the U.S. goes overseas. Many of the state's textile mills have closed.

"The cut and sew industry left," he said. "It will never come back."

In one of Slade's field, he explains how the cotton plant blooms -- the flowers start out white; then they turn a pale pink. He points out a little green sphere that later this month will split open into a tuft of white fiber and eventually Slade will take it -- and hundreds of thousands like it -- to the local cotton gin to be cleaned.

The local cotton gin in the case is Roanoke Tar Cotton, Inc., which Slade happens to own and operate. It's a business he started back in 1991 -- a giant maze of machines -- some with 198 saws -- designed to pick and comb through cotton.

Three weeks from now, Slade will be gearing up for ginning season. He'll hire a staff of 65 workers, and two months ahead of the election, he is thinking about each and every one of them.

"I'll be very honest with you. Our labor force here is Hispanic," he said, referrring to the mostly migrant workers who show up just before the start of ginning season.

Immigration reform is a big priority for Slade, even if it isn't for most North Carolinians.

Overall, North Carolinians tend to have a pretty balanced view of immigration, says Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll.

"Being a state that has a large agricultural industry, I think there are a lot of people in the business -- and people who know people that are in the agricultural business -- that know that this industry relies on immigrant labor," said Fernandez.

For his part, Slade has hired hundreds of immigrants over the years -- and he thinks they deserve a chance to achieve the American Dream.

"We need to address our non-resident workforce. These people came to America, whether they came legally or not, they came into America and they contributed. They went to work," said Slade.

Slade supports President Obama's decision to allow children of immigrants who came here illegally to apply for "deferred action" against deportation.

"Those young people can become productive citizens without constantly looking over their shoulder," he said. "I think this is a great thing."

Today, just about 9 percent of North Carolina's population is Hispanic. In Martin County, it's about 3 percent, but it's growing. Slade calls himself "an optimist" -- all farmers are, he says. And he is hopeful politicians will take up immigration reform soon. Meanwhile, North Carolina still has a ways to go -- the unemployment rate is 9.4 percent. But Slade says President Obama deserves credit for trying to shore up the economy.

"The American public chose for a change in the last election and they chose a good man. And it will be in November when we'll decide if the American people thinks their choice was the right choice last time," said Slade.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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