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Georgia ag labor picture still cloudy

Last spring, Georgia farmers took a roundhouse to the jaw when the state Legislature passed one of the nation’s toughest anti-immigration bills just before the start of the spring harvest. Fearful workers stayed away in droves, and the state lost $150 million in crops alone and sustained an overall economic loss of $500 million.

House Bill 87 is now Georgia law, and gives authorities the right to challenge practically anyone’s resident status for practically any reason. And even though two constitutional challenges have been filed against the bill and will be heard at some point by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, that ruling will likely not come in time to affect this season.

In the words of United Fresh President Tom Stenzel, Georgia has become “the poster child” for the immigration issue. So the question on everyone’s minds for the last 12 months has been: Who will show up to harvest Peach State crops this spring?

So far this spring labor has been adequate if not abundant, according to Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“That’s generally the comments that I’m hearing: We’ve got adequate labor, the people we’re talking to say they’re going to have labor coming in to help us, so far all the signals are that everything will be okay,” Mr. Hall said. “Now who knows? This didn’t hit until the third week of May last year after the governor signed HB 87. It’s still early.”

The timing of the 11th Circuit review will be critical for Georgia this year, Mr. Hall said.

“If for some reason the 11th Circuit rules that the two challenged sections of HB 87 are constitutional then we’re going to have the same fiasco we had last year,” Mr. Hall said. “It’s a wait-and-see game at this point. If the 11th Circuit doesn’t rule until July or August we’ll be past our crunch time and we’ll probably be OK.”

For now. Clearly a state-by-state approach to the immigration issue has not worked “and we can’t seem to get there nationally because there’s such a divergence of opinions, left and right,” Mr. Hall said.

This time next year, Georgia growers and those in other states who have 10 or more full-time employees on Jan. 1, 2013 will also be facing the specter of eVerify, which is due to become law July 1, 2013.

“I’ve heard all sorts of things about how people are trying to get around it,” Mr. Hall said. “I’m not a lawyer, I’m not advising them. But I’ve heard some growers talking about laying people off at Christmas and hiring them back first week of January.

“A lot of consumers say, ‘What part of illegal don’t you understand?’ Our growers understand illegal, but they’re not policemen,” Mr. Hall said. “If the worker has what appears to be legal documentation, they’ve done all they’re supposed to do. It’s not an easy situation. It’s tough all the way around.”

At the core of the issue is a domestic workforce unwilling or unable to take on demanding jobs in agriculture.

“How many people raise their kids to be a cucumber picker? There aren’t too many people out there who make that their goal in life,” Mr. Hall said. “There are jobs that most Americans don’t want or don’t want to do — they’re too difficult, too hard, or there’s too much skill involved — and we’ve got to figure out a way of providing that work to guest workers who are here legally, who can do the work and can go home.”

Some Georgia growers have had success with the federal H-2A visa program, despite its cumbersome nature and the costs it adds to doing business.

“Everything we do is on the H-2A program so we’re going to have labor, we’re doing it the legal way. It’s not the cheapest way for sure, but it’s the legal way and can ensure that we have labor,” said Dug Schwalls of south Georgia vegetable grower Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable Inc. in Moultrie. “If we weren’t the first people in Georgia using H2-A, we were one of the first, and we’ve pretty much always done it since it became available. It’s an aggravating process, but overall, in the long run, it’s beneficial for us. Sometimes there are problems that arise with [foreign workers] who have applied and you wind up losing workers, a last-minute deal where their papers aren’t in order or they don’t make the bus, so we ask for a little bit more than we actually need to have a little bit of a buffer. I think we’re going to be in good shape as far as labor goes. Last year we had a problem with different crew leaders [from other companies] coming through our camp trying to get them to come work for them. They’re on contract, and would be deported, but last year was rough.”

Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, one of the nation’s larger onion grower-shippers, also utilizes the H-2A program. Said Director of Sales Richard Pazderski, “We don’t anticipate having any issues with our labor because we participate in the guest worker program. As long as we don’t have any snags getting the guest workers to the U.S. we’ll be just fine. We’ve not had any issues to date and have done everything that we normally do in preparation for Vidalia season.”