By Marlee Jackson
Slivers of greenery fall to the ground as Moxie Baustistia carefully and quickly clips, snips and sculpts spiraled topiaries.
Baustistia is an H-2A guest worker at Dairyland Nursery in Mobile County, and his natural ability with Mark Williams’ niche product is a blessing, said the nursery co-owner.
“These spirals and things we sculpt, there’s no jig or pattern,” Williams said. “Everything is done by eye. All our guys want to do right. They don’t want to cut corners. That is a Godsend.”
Tour groups often visit the dairy-turned-nursery in the Tanner Williams community and get an up-close look at Baustistia’s shear skills.
In front of a semicircle of viewers, Baustistia can transform untrimmed, 5-foot-tall cedars into turn-and-a-half spiraled topiaries in less than 10 minutes. It’s a highly specialized skill that seems simple — until volunteers are asked to mimic his work.
“It is so funny,” Williams said. “They go to cutting and get lost. Moxie makes it looks easy, but when the shears are in your hand, it’s a different ballgame.”
H-2A guest workers like Baustistia are temporary, legal agricultural workers who ply their skills on American farms for a set time. Williams’ workers are like family and are family; Baustistia’s sons Oscar and Fredy, plus brother-in-law Martin, work at Dairyland from mid-January to mid-November. That’s in line with the federal work program’s maximum 10-month service agreement.
This fall, they’ll return home to Mexico’s mountainous Oaxaca region. Its arid landscape is a sharp contrast to Dairyland’s lush greenery. The opportunities are different, too.
“They’re educated but in a rural area,” Williams said. “If they were not working here, they’d be traveling or working construction in a different part of Mexico. Or they’d be in the military. It is a sacrifice for them to be away for 10 months in Tanner Williams, Alabama. We realize that.”
While their work takes sacrifice, it’s also flush with strength and savvy, said the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Blake Thaxton.
“It’s amazing the quality and caliber of work that these guys can accomplish,” said Thaxton, who works with specialty crop farmers like Williams. “They’re incredible people and really make agriculture work in our state. It’s hard to find domestic labor, but these legal guest workers are a blessing to the farms they work on.”
Guest workers’ expertise includes more than Moxie’s skill sculpting topiaries. Alabama’s 2,000 guest workers prune and graft hundreds of varieties of trees and shrubs at nurseries; grow mums and other potted plants in greenhouses; swiftly stake tomatoes on vegetable farms; and operate multi-million-dollar machinery on vast row crop operations.
That’s not just true in Alabama. Williams and other south Alabama farmers have toured farms and industries across the U.S. over the past few years on an annual tour coordinated by the Federation. Those visits to Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee and more have hammered home the labor shortage reality, Williams said.
“Regardless of where we go and regardless of how big or small the farm is, labor is one of the toughest things we deal with now,” Williams said. “The more I see, the more it concerns me. People see the shortage of labor at restaurants and signs for work all over the place, but I don’t know if they realize how much that impacts the ag industry.”
When Williams leaves the farm for that annual Federation trip or other business, he’s not worried about Dairyland. It’s in his workers’ capable hands.
“They are like family to us. There is 100% trust,” Williams said. “It is such a blessing to be able to leave and know if something comes up or a customer comes, we can make things that need to happen happen. If not for the H-2A program, I don’t know where we’d be with this nursery.
“They are the heart of what we do. No question.”
This is the third piece in a four-part series about Alabama’s need for guest workers. Read the final installment in the March issue of Neighbors.