The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
DOUGLAS — One hundred degrees worth of heat beats down upon the blackberry field, but Ismael Rodriguez plucks berry after berry with the speed of a veteran fruit picker.
Vino Wong, firstname.lastname@example.org Ismael Rodriguez, 25, collects blackberries as the temperature overs in the mid 90s at Paulk Farm in Irwin County.
Vino Wong, email@example.com Gary Paulk of Paulk Farm in Irwin County, is facing a lack of workers to help harvest his 60-acre blackberry farm due to the recent Georgia immigration bill.
Not far away, however, berries are shriveling on the vine on this South Georgia farm.
The farm owners say they don’t have enough workers during this peak harvest season, namely Hispanic pickers such as Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a migrant worker. He is also an illegal immigrant. And, like many of his fellow pickers, he fears a new state law aimed at illegal immigration. Many migrants skipped Georgia this season as they follow the ripening of crops across the country.
Supporters of the law say that shows it is already working. They want the law to clear the state of illegal immigrants, who they say are taking advantage of Georgia’s schools, hospitals and workplaces, draining public funds as they take jobs that could help the unemployed.
“I think we’re the only country that allows people to come in and take over,” said Sheila Bryan, 58, who cleans homes around Tifton, a farming community in South Georgia. “I’m sure there are enough legal people to do the work.”
The new law, set to take effect July 1, is a new kind of heat bearing down on thousands of illegal immigrants in fruit and vegetable fields of Georgia, as well as their employers. Some workers who live in the state have sold their belongings and moved to pick the fields in North Carolina and Florida. Others, such as Rodriguez, are waiting to see what the new law brings and say it won’t take much to send them packing.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently visited farms in South Georgia to see what’s happening on the ground, even as the illegal immigration issue churns in the courts and halls of powers. State agriculture officials are reviewing the extent of the worker shortages, and labor officials are brainstorming on ways to fill the gap. Civil rights advocates filed a lawsuit Thursday to stop the law before it takes effect.
The AJC found that some farm owners, especially those who rely on migrant workers, see the July start date of the law coming at them like a wrecking ball. Many of their crops are peaking right now, and they say they are desperate for pickers. Some farms have as few as half the workers they had last year. Once these fruits and vegetables ripen, a few days’ delay in picking them can mean thousands of dollars dying on the vine. Farmers are already abandoning acres of fruit. They are raising wages, offering show-up bonuses, hanging employment posters in Hispanic groceries.
But it remains unclear exactly how widespread the labor shortages are and what the final impact will be.
The new law requires many businesses to confirm whether their new hires are eligible to work in the United States. It also empowers law enforcement to check the immigration status of people stopped even for minor traffic offenses.
While many of the farms that rely on Hispanic workers are in South Georgia, the impact of the labor shortage could reach metro Atlantans, farmers and agriculture advocates say. Production shortages could increase prices in local supermarkets. In addition, the trouble with finding farmworkers — so urgent as crops come in for the summer harvest — could be a harbinger of shortages in metro Atlanta industries that depend on Hispanic workers. That could drive up costs for construction work, restaurants, tourist spots and landscaping.
“There’s going to be some pain in this legislation,” said state Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, a supporter of the law. “But there will also be relief in regards to illegal immigration, to stop it from taxing our infrastructure.”
But, he said: “I wouldn’t want my crops rotting in the fields. It is not the intent of this law to hurt the state’s economy.”
Murphy is awaiting the state review of the worker shortage.
Bo Herndon, a farmer in Toombs County, said the labor shortage has already cost him $150,000 in Vidalia onions that rotted in the field. He’s loading trucks as late as midnight to harvest his sweet corn in time.
Jason Berry, a farmer in Baxley, has lost 10 percent of his spring yield of highbush blueberries and has begun picking more fruit by machine. That leads to more damaged fruit that is either rejected or sent to the market for pies and frozen foods rather than the more lucrative market for fresh berries.
J.W. Paulk, the owner of the farm where Rodriguez works, said he has been unable to find workers beyond the Hispanic community, despite requests to the local labor office. Others just can’t stand this much heat, and they come and go in a day or so.
Among his 125 acres of blackberries in Irwin County, he has 150 workers trying to do the work of 250. This year he raised wages from $3 to $3.50 per box of blackberries. That will cost him about $10,000 more a week. The raise helped attract 30 more workers, who earn about $100 a day. The raise will earn them about $8 more a day. He has asked pickers to start their workday earlier to gather more of the ripening crop, but he has already abandoned one field, which cost him about $40,000.
“We’re falling behind,” said Paulk, whose farm is located about a four-hour drive south of Atlanta. Overall, Georgia farming advocates say growers could lose $300 million this season, and the toll could be even higher for future seasons.
Pedro Guerrero, Paulk’s crew leader in charge of rounding up workers, said he has never had so much trouble finding pickers. He has made two extra trips to Florida looking for help. He is going door to door in local Hispanic neighborhoods, where he sees many more “For Rent” signs due to the lack of workers.
“When the governor signed the new law, they decided not to come to Georgia,” Guerrero said of the migrant workers. Some even avoided driving through the state to get from Florida to North Carolina. “They’re afraid to come here.”
Out in the fields, workers talk of leaving, in a hurry if need be. They are accustomed to this work and wear long-sleeve shirts, broad hats and bandannas that drape across their face and down over the backs of their necks.
Rodriguez, the berry picker, worries he will be arrested and deported and what would then happen to his 1-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
“I don’t feel comfortable,” he said through a translator, continuing to pick berries. “I worry.”
Farmworkers who are legal say they worry they could be arrested for simply driving a sick illegal worker to a medical office. The new law punishes people who — while committing another crime — knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants or encourage them to come to Georgia.
Some workers won’t leave their homes after work, for fear of being stopped by the police. That, and the general lack of workers here, has created a drain on local businesses, especially those that cater to the Hispanic community. Even some Hispanics who are legal say they worry about being harassed by the police.
At the state Labor Department office in Douglas, some unemployed people said they would not work in the fields. But some would give it a shot.
Billy Bennett, an unemployed truck driver, said he favors cracking down on people who are in this country illegally.
“Anytime you make it easier for them to be in this country illegally, it’s wrong,” said Bennett, 44. “They say Americans don’t want those jobs, but that’s not true. When there’s no jobs around, people will take them.”
But Bennett said he would probably not work eight hours in the field for $100 a day. He’d rather stick to his own line of work.
Quamari Williams, 36, working on his resume in the employment office, said he was willing to try the fields.
“I need a job so bad,” said the man who had lost his job at Turner Field a month ago and is now living with a friend. “It would be temporary, until I found something else. It’s the heat thing.”
Farmers say they don’t knowingly employ illegal immigrants. An employee must show various papers — driver’s license, resident alien card, state ID — to prove they are permitted to work, they say. Workers say they hope the law is stopped before it starts. Farmers are hoping for a guest-worker program or some exemptions for their employees.
Over at Docia Farms in Tifton, which provides fruit for Kroger and Ingels in metro Atlanta, cantaloupe growing on the ground are turning from green to a ripe yellow. For the next eight weeks, workers will pick the fruit over 360 acres. The farm has 45 pickers but needs 70.
In the field, German Hernandez, a 33-year-old migrant worker, wears a hat and gloves as he tosses cantaloupe along a line of five men into a trailer. An illegal immigrant, Hernandez said he will head to North Carolina or Florida if the new law makes it tough for him to work here.
Farm owner Philip Grimes, who has been doing this work for 20 years, has heard the workers’ concerns. He has $1 million invested in the production line that cleans and packs the cantaloupe. If he cannot find enough pickers, he said he will stop growing produce. Next year he’ll stick to peanuts and cotton, which can be harvested mechanically. Canteloupe is too fragile, he said.
“I don’t know what to do,” Grimes said. “I’m just trying to get my crop out.”