Moultrie Observer

Agriculture

October 4, 2011

Survey: Labor shortage cost farmers $140M

MOULTRIE — Economic losses  due to a shortage of workers at harvest time in the spring may have cost produce growers in the state $140 million, the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association reported Tuesday.

On the same day, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black recommended to Congress a program that allows illegal immigrants to work in agriculture provided they pay a fine and annual fees.

Growers filling out surveys reported a 40 percent shortage in the number of workers needed to pick seven crops, including bell pepper, cucumber and squash. The largest losses were reported in blueberries, with losses estimated at $29 million.

The shortage of migrant workers, who feared legal repercussions after legislators passed a tough new immigration law, was exacerbated by unusually hot weather that caused crops to ripen more quickly than normal. That put an even bigger crunch on growers as the normal harvest period was shortened.

For Colquitt County vegetable grower Sam Watson, the worst losses were in squash.

“It’s a fast-growing crop,” he said. “If you miss one day (picking) it’s too big, and it’s over. We left a lot of product in the field because we didn’t have the people to cover it.”

Watson’s operation, which also grows cucumbers, bell  peppers and pickles, was one of two in the state that tried an emergency program that sent state probationers to pick vegetables. Officials said that program had mixed results and did not provide sufficient labor to meet growers’ needs in its first year.

“That program didn’t come out until the very end of the season,” Watson said. “There was a lot of product that was left in the field before that program came about.”

The amount of labor was inconsistent, with only 10 showing up on some days. As the harvest work fell behind, so did other work.

“We did have difficulty with just basic things like pulling weeds,” Watson said. “When you have 10 people instead of 20 people — it’s hot, it’s hard work — you can only pick what the people can pick.”

The concept of using probationers was a “good idea,” he said, and provided some relief.

Watson has looked into the federal H2A guest-worker program, but said it is too expensive for a small operation like his.

Under the program, farmers contract for labor for a specific number of workers for a specified time. They are responsible for the costs of transporting workers to and from their country of origin, food, medical care and wages for the entire contract period. However, if crops come in earlier or later than anticipated workers would not be available. And in the event of a catastrophic crop loss farmers still are on the hook for the laborers’ wages.

During his testimony Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, Black broached a suggestion for allowing illegal workers to work in agriculture. He also suggested letting states have more control of day-to-day responsibilities of administering guest-worker programs.

“A penalty-based work authorization permit should be considered for offenders,” he said in his testimony. “Such a measure could require substantial monetary fines, an annually renewed biometric permit supported by fees that is restricted for agriculture and strict employer enforcement after implementation.”

Such a program would require federal approval, said state Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlockonee, who himself is a pecan grower.

Over the past 15 years Georgia farmers have increased fruit and vegetable acreage, most of which require hand-picking to avoid damaging the delicate produce, he said.

“These people are in this country, they’re performing jobs that, unfortunately, American workers don’t want to do, and what are we going to do?” he said. “We can’t get enough help for the quantities we are growing in Georgia.”

Bulloch said he would support Black’s proposal, which fines illegal workers while giving local workers the first chance at agricultural jobs. It also would prohibit agricultural workers from taking other type work.

“We’ve got a situation,” he said. “The first thing is that word illegal. When we have people here illegal, that’s an issue.

“You have so many (families) where the dad is illegal, the mother may or not be, and then they have three children who are legal under the law of the United States. If you send the father back, you’ve sent the bread winner out of the country.  We’ve got to find a medium way for this to work. It wouldn’t be a free ride, and it would be on an annual basis.”

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