Labor required to plant Georgia's Vidalia Onion Crop (www.vidaliaonion.org)
• 80,000 seedlings "hand" planted per acre
• 12,000 acres planted each year
• Vidalia fields planted in 14-inch rows spaced 4.5 to 6 inches apart
• One person can plant one-half acre per work day.
With most parts of Georgia's new immigration law slated to go into effect on July 1, Georgia farmers are already experiencing migrant labor shortages with expectations for the situation to worsen exponentially over the next several months. Even a ruling Monday that temporarily halts some of the law's provisions is not expected to make much of a difference.
The new law, known as HB 87, would allow law enforcement to check the immigration status of a suspect who cannot provide identification and empowers them to turn over anyone found to be in the country illegally to federal authorities. It also adds new penalties for those convicted of harboring illegal immigrants and presenting false documents when applying for a job.
Bulloch farmers say that that fewer migrant fieldworkers are showing up for work after state lawmakers passed the tough law targeting illegal immigrants. The measure will eventually force farmers and other employers to use a federal database to verify their workers are legal. That will begin to be phased in starting in January.
"Thank goodness our harvesting season for Vidalia onions, carrots, and watermelons is over," said Jamie Brannen, a partner in Gerrald's Sweet Vidalia Onions located on Highway 24 in Clito. "Our operation is heavily dependent on legal foreign born labor. We employ more than 300 during the springtime and early summer."
Gone to S.C.
Brannen said he knows that many of the legal migrant workers that would normally work in this area during this time of year have left to go work in neighboring South Carolina in anticipation of the new law.
"As soon as they could find other work outside of Georgia, they moved," he said. "I know that this workforce is very scared of the new law, and I can understand that. No one wants to live their life afraid that they will be hassled, particularly when they are here legally, and are obeying our laws."
While Brannen said that his crops have been harvested, and he hasn't experienced the ramifications of a labor shortage yet, he knows that other areas of the state are being affected, and he expects to have a great deal of trouble getting the necessary labor to plant his Vidalia onion crop in the fall.
"I am truly, truly worried," he said. "The nature of farm work is that it is seasonal, depending on the weather patterns in the geographic area that you farm. Having a local workforce that is willing to wait for months in between work isn't feasible. You need a migrant workforce, and at this time it appears that that workforce is going to be avoiding our state."
Georgia governor Nathan Deal asked Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black to survey growers after several warned that the new law was scaring away the Hispanic migrant workers who help harvest the state's crops. Results issued two weeks ago revealed a tremendous agricultural labor shortage across the state.
"After a thorough review of the voluntary survey conducted by Georgia's Department of Agriculture, under the leadership of Commissioner Gary Black, it is my understanding that there are some 11,000 employment opportunities currently available in the agriculture community for one day, one month or multiple months," Deal said.
Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue said the state may face some unintended consequences with its new immigration law. "There's a real legitimate worker shortage where there is a real fear and perception that Georgia is probably not a state to be seen in if you're of a different color," he said. "I don't think that's what Georgia wants to be known as."
‘Scared to death'
Local farmer Lloyd Strickland said the migrant farming community is "scared to death," and he is also worried that a mass exodus of the workforce is imminent.
"I have already heard of farmers in southwest Georgia plowing under their cantaloupes, because there was no labor to harvest them," Strickland said. "Produce requires labor. Peas, cantaloupes, watermelons, onions, peppers and cucumbers all have to be harvested by hand. A lot of crops have to be planted by hand as well. If our migrant labor force goes away, I won't be planting produce any longer, and I can't imagine what the price of produce will be. The consumer will be shocked."
Deal suggested last week that people on probation could replace field workers who might be scared away by a crackdown on illegal immigration.
"The agriculture industry is the number one economic engine in Georgia and it is my sincere hope to find viable and law abiding solutions to the current problem our farmers face." Deal said. "Specifically, I asked Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens and Commissioner Black to review the current situation and offer possible options. Commissioner Owens has indicated that there are 100,000 probationers statewide, 8,000 of which are in the Southwest region of the state and 25 percent of which are unemployed. Commissioner Owens is working with Commissioner Black and other state agencies to connect unemployed probationers--especially those in the Southwest part of the state--and others who are preparing to reenter the workforce to employers who are seeking labor.
Challenging the law
Civil liberties groups have challenged the new law in court, and Mexico and 10 other countries have joined the legal fight against the law, warning that the strict crackdown could jeopardize close ties between the U.S. and its Latin American neighbors.
The nations filed briefs last week in support of civil liberties groups who asked a federal judge to declare Georgia's new law unconstitutional and block it from taking effect. The filing from Mexico said the country's top officials were closely watching the debate surrounding the Georgia measure. It said Mexican officials were dismayed when Georgia passed the law, which it said could impact millions of Mexican workers, tourists and students in the U.S., and millions more whose jobs depend on international trade.
"Mexico respectfully submits that, if HB 87 is allowed to take effect, it will have a significant and long-lasting adverse impact on U.S.-Mexico bilateral relations, and on Mexican citizens and other people of Latin American descent present in Georgia," the filing said.
Monday, a federal judge granted a request to block parts of Georgia's law cracking down on illegal immigration from taking effect until a legal challenge is resolved.
Judge Thomas Thrash on Monday blocked parts of the law that penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants. He also blocked provisions that authorize officers to verify the immigration status of someone who can't provide proper identification.
Brannen said he believes the U.S. is in desperate need of immigration reform on a national level, as opposed to state-by-state, so that everyone is competing on a level playing field.
"If I have to get labor exclusively through a government exchange program such as the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, because the migrant workforce won't come to this state, then my labor costs are going to be double that of my competitor in a neighboring state such as South Carolina," he said. "The bottom line is that I will be unable to put out a competitive product. Our produce will be much more expensive, and I don't know how we would be viable under that scenario. I think our lawmakers have put us in a very, unfair position."
Charles Hall is the executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. His organization has been inundated with calls from Georgia growers.
"We really don't have any answers right now," he said. "Based on reports that we have from growers, workers are not coming to Georgia, and decisions will have to be made in the next several weeks as to what to plant in the fall. Farmers cannot just depend on workers showing up any longer. Somehow, they are going to have to make sure that they have that labor."
Hall said that if the law doesn't go into effect as schedule, he isn't sure if the labor shortage will abate.
"We are having this problem before July 1 when it is not in effect," he said. "As this law is sorted out in the legal system, in effect or not, I suspect the shortage will continue, and I don't see how the government programs that are in place can effectively provide the workforce that is needed. This is an extremely difficult situation with far reaching ramifications that we are only now beginning to understand."