10/4 – AJC – Report: Farm labor shortages damage Georgia’s economy | ajc.com

Report: Farm labor shortages damage Georgia’s economy  | ajc.com.

Georgia Politics 10:53 a.m. Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s economy is projected to shrink by $391 million and lose 3,260 jobs as a result of farm labor shortages this year, according to a report released Tuesday by the state’s agricultural industry.

Gary Paulk of Paulk Farm in Irwin County said in June he had to abandon five acres of blackberries because he couldn't get enough workers to pick the fruit.

Vino Wong, vwong@ajc.com Gary Paulk of Paulk Farm in Irwin County said in June he had to abandon five acres of blackberries because he couldn’t get enough workers to pick the fruit.

The study also says many fruit and vegetable growers are preparing to harvest fewer acres or mechanically harvest more than they have in the past because of the labor gap.

The report does not cite the reasons for the shortage in laborers in Georgia’s $68.8 billion agricultural industry, the state’s largest. But many farmers complained this year that Georgia’s new immigration enforcement law — House Bill 87 — has scared away the migrant Hispanic workers they depend on, putting their crops at risk.

The University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development completed the study this month for the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association and other state agricultural groups.

Researchers studied data from seven fruit and vegetable crops representing nearly half of the acreage available for harvest last spring. They tied an estimated $140 million in crop losses to a shortage of 5,244 farm laborers this year.

The association released some of the report’s findings Tuesday morning, just hours before it was scheduled to present the information at this year’s United Fresh Produce Association’s Public Policy Conference in Washington.

Also, Georgia’s agriculture commissioner and a South Georgia blueberry farmer were scheduled to testify Tuesday at a 10 a.m. congressional hearing in Washington on farm labor shortages, state immigration laws and guest-worker programs. The Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security has billed the hearing as a discussion of “America’s Agriculture Labor Crisis: Enacting a Practical Solution.”

Many farmers are critical of state laws such as HB 87 that will require them to use the federal E-Verify program. The program helps employers ensure their newly hired employees can legally work in the United States. Legislation is pending in Congress to mandate the use of E-Verify nationwide. Proponents say such laws will prevent illegal immigrants from taking jobs away from U.S. citizens and burdening taxpayer-funded resources, including schools, hospitals and jails.

Meanwhile, farmers are complaining that the federal government’s guest-worker programs are cumbersome, costly and mired in red tape.

“Georgia is the poster child for what can happen when mandatory E-Verify and enforcement legislation is passed without an adequate guest-worker program,” Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, said in a prepared statement.

Hall said the full report from UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development will be released later this week. He released some of the findings Tuesday morning, including a breakdown of this year’s $74.9 million in crop losses:

  • Blueberries, $29 million
  • Vidalia onions, $16.3 million
  • Bell peppers, $15.1 million
  • Cucumbers, $5.9 million
  • Blackberries, $4 million
  • Watermelons, $2.5 million
  • Squash, $1.9 million

The report does not explain what could have contributed to farm labor shortages in Georgia. But during his testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black pointed to “unusually high heat and lack of rain, which caused an unexpected rush in harvests” in Georgia. Black also summarized the findings from a separate, state-run survey of farmers that shows they had 11,080 jobs open this summer, which is about 14 percent of the full-time positions that are filled annually.

Immigration watchdogs say they are sensitive to the farmers’ concerns. But they wonder whether farmers could attract more U.S. workers by boosting their pay and recruiting practices.

“I would hope the farm industry focuses on using legal H-2A visas for guest workers and working with the feds to streamline and reform that federal guest-worker program,” said Phil Kent, who serves on Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board and is the national spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control.

Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA, a nonprofit that supports lower immigration levels, has suggested in the past that farmers might become more innovative if they did not depend on the labor of illegal immigrants. They might even resort to using more mechanization in harvesting, he said.

But, the Center for American Progress — a liberal policy group in Washington that opposes Georgia’s immigration law — is preparing to release a study Tuesday that takes a critical look at HB 87. The report says the state’s farming industry would lose nearly $800 million annually if it were to replace all its handpicked crops with mechanically harvested crops to avoid problems associated with finding laborers.

“The only real solution to these problems is a comprehensive federal strategy,” the report says. “These state-based efforts are merely costly, counterproductive skirmishes that distract and prevent progress on reforming our immigration system.”


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