Farmers tie labor woes

Farmers tie labor woes

May 31st, 2011 Jeremy Redmon, Cox Newspapers in News

In this Dec. 10, 2010 file photo, a worker tears off the leaves of a Vidalia onion plant before planting its roots into the soil on an onion farm in Lyons, Ga.. A Georgia state lawmaker on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011 filed legislation that targets illegal immigrants in the work force and is drawing criticism from the state's No. 1 industry, agriculture. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

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ATLANTA - Migrant farmworkers are bypassing Georgia because of the state's tough new immigration enforcement law, creating a severe labor shortage among fruit and vegetable growers here and potentially putting hundreds of millions of dollars in crops in jeopardy, agricultural industry leaders said last week.

Meanwhile, the state's Republican labor and agricultural commissioners are discussing issuing a joint statement in the coming days about what they intend to do about the labor shortage, a Labor Department spokesman confirmed.

Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said he has been in close contact with Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black about the shortage, calling it the most severe he has seen.

Hall said it's possible state officials could hold job fairs to steer some of Georgia's unemployed workers to these farm jobs, which pay $12.50 an hour on average. The state's unemployment rate is now at 9.9 percent.

Farmers, however, say they often have little luck recruiting Georgia residents to work in their fields because it is temporary, hot and physically demanding. To recruit more workers, some farmers are offering signing bonuses, Hall said.

The law doesn't take effect until July 1 but is already making migrant Hispanic farmworkers skittish, said Dick Minor, a partner with Minor Brothers Farm in Leslie in southwest Georgia, who says he is missing about 50 of his workers now, threatening as much as a third of his crops.

Some farmers who work in Georgia's $1.1 billion fruit and vegetable industry are reporting they have only two-thirds or half the workers they need now and for the weeks of harvesting to come, Hall said.

Farmers said the full extent of the shortages won't be known until the coming weeks as they harvest their remaining crops, including watermelons and sweet corn. Hall estimated such shortages could put as much as $300 million in crops at risk this year.

John McKissick, who teaches and researches agricultural economics for the University of Georgia, said the farmers' assertions about the labor shortage are plausible, but he could not independently confirm them.

"I have certainly heard reports of shortages," he said. "There are certainly a lot of dollars on the line with timely fruit and vegetable harvests."

This month, Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 87 into law. Among other things, the law punishes people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants here. It also authorizes police to investigate the immigration status of suspects they believe have committed state or federal crimes and who cannot produce identification, such as a driver's license, or provide other information that could help police identify them.

Georgia's agricultural industry - the largest in the state - vigorously opposed HB 87 in the Legislature, arguing it could scare away migrant workers and damage the state's economy.

Minor, who is also president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said the Mexican workers he normally depends on to harvest his cucumbers and squash are staying away from Georgia over concerns they will be harassed.

"People are just saying: 'I am not going to Georgia. The law is terrible. We are going to get in trouble there. Let's just go on,"' Minor said. "They have got options. And what they are saying is 'Georgia is not the place to go.'"

Minor said his farm is struggling with a shortage of workers even after boosting pay to attract more of them. He added his farm works with the state Labor Department to ensure his hires are eligible to work in the United States.

The author of Georgia's HB 87 - Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City - repeated Thursday that the law is not set to take effect until July 1.

"And there is nothing in House Bill 87 that anybody that is in our country legally has to worry about," he said.